Anaia and Racine are twin sisters who share a common tragedy. They have both survived a fire that occurred when they were small children, in which their mother was thought to be burned to death. Racine is conventionally beautiful although her torso, especially her arms, are severely scarred. Anaia’s scars have transfigured her face, and her rage and resentment are closer to the surface.
They are surprised to receive a letter from their presumably dead mother, identified only as “She.” The woman is dying and she wants her children to come see her. They go. When they arrive, their mother informs them that the fire they all survived was no accident but set by their father, identified only as “Man.” She charges them to go on a quest to kill Man.
And, She adds, bring me back a souvenir She can savor before She dies. The implication is clearly gruesome.
She also suggests that it wouldn’t be objectionable if they took out everybody around Man as well.
The girls agree they must comply. After all, She made them. As for as they figure, She is therefore God and must be obeyed.
What kind of bizarre surreal set up is this? It’s puzzling but it fascinates. By the time playwright Aleshea Harris is done, she has taken us on an incredible ride of mythic proportions, touching upon the nature of justice, the history of America, the appeal of violence, generational trauma, the haunting effects of racism in America, the nature of sin, the power of women’s rage, and even more than that. I know. That’s a mouthful—but Harris, believe me, knows how to cook!
Besides being a philosophical and theological Disneyland, “Is God Is” is wildly funny.
It is also rather difficult to describe.
In response to She’s commands, the twins set off on a quest that takes them across America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, invoking the history of western expansion and the violent legends of the wild west. As they travel, they debate whether, in fact, they could be killers. They reflect on what they know of their family history, and its origins in “Mississippi/Alabama/Georgia/Kentucky”—what they call “The Dirty South.” The “Dirty South” is referred to in the play as a whole string of Confederate state names. I’m not sure if the string I write is exactly correct (I don’t have a copy of the script) but I am close if not precise.
The title is intriguing. “Is God Is” could be read as Is God God? Which might raise the question, does God really behave as God? Is there Justice in the world? And since the twins refer to their mother as “God” the question is raised whether “God” could be dying of wounds given at the hand of “Man.” Is the play suggesting that God is, after all dead? Or dying? What does that mean?
And what does this have to do with America? Something, surely. The mythological themes of The West and The Dirty South, Black English dlalect spoken by the twins, the emphasis on sin all suggest that this might have something to do with America’s original sin of slavery and genocide against enslaved Africans and indigenous Americans?
Or is that not right at all?
One thing is certain: the world of the play is a messy, violent, frightening, sinister world that has treated these twin sisters very, very badly. And they are VERY VERY MAD.
And that is not, perhaps, a good thing.
The twins eventually reach The Valley outside Los Angeles, and are then sent into the mountains to a beautiful home atop a hill where Man has started a second family. They meet the twin children of his second marriage: Scotch and Riley – privileged teenagers with attitude. They confront Man’s second wife, Angie, who is planning an escape. And they meet Man himself – face to face. He’s charming. He’s violent. He’s sickening. He wears a cowboy hat.
The whole thing is weird and then . . . well, I’m not going to give it away.
If you find the above attempt to summarize this play to be both strange and fascinating but difficult to understand, well, then I’ve captured how I felt as an audience member.
But don’t let the strangeness put you off: this play is rich, emotionally full, impossible to turn away from, and written in a rhythmic language that is all poetry.
The direction by William Hodgson is well paced — this performance has no intermission and seems to pass in a hot minute. The designer elements are effective, especially the outstanding work of Makeup & Special Effects artist Marina Polokoff.
The acting is fantastic, with award-worthy performances from every cast member. As both She (the killer twins’ mother) and Angie (mother to the second set of twins), Tanika Baptiste is irresistably watchable. As the twin sisters Anaia and Racine , Rolanda D. Bell and Jamella Cross are at once heartbreaking, horrifying, and hilarious. How’s that for an alliterative trifecta?
Anthony Rollins-Mullins is the teen twin Scotch, and his father “Man.” Very funny as one, very scary as the other. Altogether superb.
Devin Cunningham plays a lawyer who once represented Man, as well as Man’s other twin son, Riley, with grace and wit.
Is this a Black comedy? A horror show? A spoof? A joke? A masterpiece? A meditation upon America? An exploration of Justice? An argument with God? A showcase for exgravagantly good acting? A major play by a very significant writer?
All that. Just go and see for yourself.
The Bay Area premiere of ‘Is God Is’ plays in Oakland through April 23. For further information, click here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Is God Is” by Aleshea Harris. Bay Area premiere presented by Oakland Theater Project. Director: William Hodgson. Stage Manager: Liam Kirk. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Anne Johnson. Sound Designer: James Goode. Costume Designer: Arielle Powell. Set Designer: Karla Hargrave. Projection Designer: Alexa Burrell. Make-Up & Special Effects: Marina Polakoff. Fight Choreographer: Dave Maier. Cast: Angie/She: Tanika Baptiste. Anaia: Rolanda D. Bell. Racine: Jamella Cross. Hall/Riley: Devin Cunningham. Scotch/Man: Anthony Rollins-Mullins.