Review: IS GOD IS

by Lynn on May 13, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, Ont. Running until May 22, 2022.

Written by Aleshea Harris

Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Set by Ken Mackenzie

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Raha Javanfar

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Projections by Laura Warren

Cast: Tyrone Benskin

Matthew G Brown

Oyin Oladejo

Savion Roach

Sabryn Rock

Alison Sealy-Smith

Vanessa Sears

Micah Woods

An American gothic tale of revenge and justice being given an explosive production.

The Story. Racine and Anaia are twin sisters. They have been navigating foster homes for 18 years, since they were three-years-old. When they were three-years-old they and their single mother, known as She, were in a terrible fire. Anaia suffered debilitating burns on her face and arms, Racine fared better with burns on her arms and shoulder. They were told their mother died in the fire. But then Racine received a letter from their mother from the “Dirty South” saying she was in a nursing home and dying and she wanted them to come quickly to her. She had something to say. She wrote to Racine because she thought Anaia was too emotional.  

When the twins got there, they found their mother in bed, breathing heavily, dying. She had been there since the fire. Burns covered most of her body. She thought it better the twins thought she was dead. But she then told them what happened. Her estranged husband (known as Man) broke into the apartment and set her on fire with the girls as witnesses. That’s how they got their burns. He took off for California to start another family (having twin boys).

She’s instructions to her daughters were simple: kill your father DEAD. Real DEAD and bring back proof—treasures. And because the daughters thought their mother was God (“she made us”) the sisters sought out their father and his new family to exact revenge and justice for what he did to their mother and them.  

The Production and comment.  In her play notes, African-American playwright, Aleshea Harris says: “This epic takes its cues from the ancient, the modern, the tragic, the Spaghetti Western hip-hop, and Afropunk.”

In her program note director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu says: “Is God Is takes the experiences of Black women and Black people and mythologizes them, creating a story that is truly unapologetic, free, and fueled with a kind of propulsive action that is so satisfying to bring to life.

What makes the play so exciting is that it challenges the idea of respectability politics and how we expect Black women to behave in society. It further humanizes the experiences and the complexities of how Black folk move in the world based on what we have inherited and what we desire to become.

Is God Is is at its centre about a desire for freedom and for justice. It is about breaking the cycles that bind us and fighting to take back the power that we are so often robbed of.”

And while every character in the play is African-American, for those in the audience who don’t have a Black perspective to bring to the play, they bring their own cultural experiences, different, but just as valid, to engage with the play. Such is the beauty of the theatre to join us together in story-telling, no matter how different our cultures. Is God Is has the rage of an ancient Greek story of revenge, the sweep of a Shakespearean story of an ongoing feud, the reason of which is long forgotten and the ‘ordinary’ story of getting even.  The need for revenge and justice is blazing hot. Reason doesn’t enter into it.

Ken Mackenzie’s set of large, moving screens are effective in establishing different locations, with set pieces, She’s bed etc. easily moves on an off. Ming Wong’s costumes for Racine and Anaia are rough, individual and don’t adhere to a code of others in their age group. Costumes for the other family are fashionable and hip. The make-up of the burns don’t go for realism, but they are effective in illuminating what these sisters and their mother went through.

Raha Javanfar’s effective bands of red light at the top of the screens and the moody illumination throughout are evocative. Thomas Ryder Payne’s subtle sound builds until we know that trouble is brewing. Laura Warren’s projections flash on the screens and back wall to indicate the scene titles. My concern is if the people sitting extreme house left can actually see through the ‘wall’ to get the full effect of She in her bed and the projections on the wall behind. It seemed that a wall was in the way.

Is God Is is a play full of violence, both impending and in the past. Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu is such a gifted director that she knows that the suggestion of violence is more effective than squirts of blood, guts and gore. She navigates this fraught story with care, nuance and an ever-increasing pace.  

Playwright Aleshea Harris is smart in creating her specific dialogue for Racine (Oyin Oladejo) and Anaia (Vanessa Sears), two women shunted from foster home to foster home, with no sense of stability, education or learned ‘polite ways.’ Racine, beautifully played by Oyin Oladejo, is the more street-smart and scrappy. She takes no prisoners but has a kind of innate loyalty to their absent mother. As Anaia, Vanessa Sears plays her with a heart-breaking insecurity. Anaia is the more physically damaged and because of her facial burns, people don’t look her in the face. She is the more emotional of the two, but there are surprises lingering beneath the surface.

When She (Alison Sealy-Smith) comes into the story, we get a sense that she was a caring, loving mother just from her describing what happened on the day of the fire. She picked up her girls from day-care. She gave them a healthy snack while she prepared supper. She touched them affectionately. She railed when her estranged husband looked like he would even touch them. Alison Sealy-Smith as She, gives a performance full of subtlety and nuance. Her gasps for breath are urgent and desperate. She must tell her daughters the story.

Aleshea Harris gives us another side of the family dynamic with Man’s (Tyrone Benskin) second family in California. He, his wife Angie (Sabryn Rock) and their twin sons, Riley (Micah Woods) and Scotch (Savion Roach), live in a good house on a hill; Angie has a car and money to shop for all the food the sons demand. The sons are encouraged to pursue their interests, Riley loves succulent plants and Scotch loves writing poetry. Their language suggests education and engaging with like-minded friends. But Angie is frustrated. The sons ignore her when she needs them to help with the groceries and while she says her husband is not physically violent, he is distant and she feels frightened. As Angie, Sabryn Rock is consumed with frustration, loneliness, and angst. It’s a contained but blistering performance. She plans something drastic to help her out of that situation, until Racine and Alaia turn up.

Is God Is is a ‘grab them by the throat’ play given a production that holds the audience until the end, an even after.

An Obsidian Theatre Company, Necessary Angel Theatre Company and Canadian Stage Co-production.

Runs until: May 22, 2022

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission).

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