Is God Is, Soho Rep’s world premiere of Aleshea Harris’s play (winner of the American Playwriting Foundation’s 2016 Relentless Award), is a western. Straddling the south and west in both landscape and aesthetic, two twin sisters are sent on a journey to confront (nay, more than just confront) a dark figure from their past. When that figure finally appears, clad in cowboy boots, he wears a wide black hat so low we cannot see his face. Heat is a key element. When the characters say it’s hot, it feels hot. There are no spinning pistols, but one can almost imagine the tumbleweeds just out of frame. The world (built from a claustrophobic-to-start transformational set designed by Adam Rigg and filled with haze, abrupt light cues, with short bursts of sound between scenes) feels vivid, cinematically post-apocalyptic without even having to say so. It just is.
Is God Is is also a biblical narrative, of the somewhat tongue-in-cheek variety. At least twice, the twin sisters (Racine, played by Dame-Jasmine Hughes, opposite her sister Anaia, played by Alfie Fuller) defiantly state, “We’re on a mission from God.” One can safely assume that while the playwright has seen The Blues Brothers, to which this particular quote must in some way be attributed, the characters of the play are not aware of the reference. They, like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s characters in the movie, are siblings and (they think) orphans. Early on, the twins receive a letter and are summoned to a nursing home and burdened with a terrible calling issued by their dying mother (who they had hereby assumed was already dead). After this episode, they begin to refer to their mother as ‘God’ rather than ‘Mamma.’ After all, as Racine sees it, she’s the one who made them. (Anaia’s prescient response: “You gon’ get struck down.”) If their mamma is a God, she is of the vengeful variety. In excruciating detail, she relives the horrifying scene in which she and the twins were left to die by their father, and issues a directive so clear and so dark that once it’s been said out loud, there’s no way out – and in doing so, the play’s path stretches out before us so clear and beautiful and terrible, it’s both a pleasure and nightmare to witness it play out.
Is God Is is a family drama, astutely balanced. One family must confront a new, different version of itself. The two twins, nearing the end of their quest, will come face to face with a totally alien version of what they could have had and who they could have been, under different circumstances. They are faced with a more upper class, differently gendered version of themselves, living up in the hills of California. South family stands off against West family, two versions of the story colliding in real space and time. Is God Is is also a collection of battles, grounded by its own violent nature, with a body count to match.
Is God Is is a language play, in the best of ways. The playwright Aleshea Harris is also a poet, and the play as it exists on the page is spatially curious, with varying font sizes and word placements – the play’s words get big, they get small, they sprawl across multiple pages, they sometimes explode. This rigor of word and placement fuels the staging (the director is Taibi Magar), which translates that precision and sparseness into inescapable momentum in which the rightness of the word and the righteousness of the calling become twinned (in a play with many twinnings). Staged often facing three-quarters-out (sometimes with spoken stage directions), there is an intentional performativity that allows the language to exist parallel to while still driving the action. The words live in our brains, the action in our stomachs. They meet with every not-so-rhetorical gut-punch.
Is God Is is a revenge play, mythical as well as biblical. Revenge plays have the benefit of a clear ending. We know where this is headed – we almost know how it must end, which imbues it with epic clout. Here is a play with grip – on us, but also, the grip of its characters, reaching out and pulling each other down at every opportunity – a few of which elicited gasps in the theater on the night I attended. Even if we might wish for a moment to maneuver, space to either appreciate or get some distance from the action, the play never lets go. It tightens around us. It completes a cycle and begins anew. It does all those things that we ask each of these different story-types to do – the western, the biblical myth, the family drama, the revenge tragedy – and weaves them together so tight that the resulting fabric feels (improbably, magically) brand new.
Is God Is runs to March 25, 2018. More production info can be found here.