Theater Review: Is God Is Seeks the Divine

From Is God Is, at Soho Rep.

Is God Is. The title of Aleshea Harris’s play is cyclical: a question, followed by an answer, followed by a question. Doubt, certainty, doubt again. The play has cycles built into its DNA: it’s a revenge drama, and as we’ve known since Sophocles put the cursed House of Atreus on stage, violence begets violence as surely as Adam begat Cain and Abel.

Last year, I wrote about the problem of comparing work by artists of color to that of white Western artists, but Harris (who is African-American) is consciously working in a realm of pastiche. Her script tells us, “This epic takes its cues from the ancient, the modern, the tragic, the Spaghetti Western, hip-hop and Afropunk.” There’re hints of the Oresteia in there, right alongside Kill Bill. The wily, genre-hopping play won the 2016 Relentless Award, and now in its world premiere at Soho Rep, under the direction of Taibi Magar, it feels both exciting and … well … not quite as epic as it could. Granted, the theater itself is a tiny space, but I kept longing for the work within it to feel more expansive, more explosive. The potential is there. Harris’s play is a rich, funny, unnerving, exhilarating gold mine — its current production is only unearthing some of its treasure.

In a kind of twisted There and Back Again tale, Is God Is follows two sisters, Racine and Anaia (or, ’Cine and ’Naia, as they often call each other), on a cross-country quest for vengeance. Not just sisters — twins. ’Cine and ’Naia are bonded by blood in more ways than one. As babies, they both suffered horrible violence: a fire that left them disfigured and their mother, they believe, dead. Racine “still got some pretty to her” (the burns didn’t reach her face), but not poor, shy Anaia, whose “face looked like it melted and then froze” and who can’t afford her sister’s nasty streak: “Girl so ugly don’t get to be mean.” Echoes of Adam and Eve’s ill-fated sons, as well as of the matricidal Orestes and Electra, resonate in the bodies of these “burnin’ twins.”

The sisters share vocal patterns, riffing off each other and sometimes speaking in unison. They and the play’s other characters also frequently narrate for themselves, as if delivering their own stage directions. I often found myself thinking of the spoken actions in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays. Whether or not the echo is an intentional homage, it feels moving and effective: here’s one black playwright in conversation with another, both experimenting with a kind of language that highlights displacement, the feeling of being outside oneself looking in. It’s an inherently theatrical technique, but beyond that, it creates a powerful sense of estrangement, of what happens to you when the world’s brutality forces you outside of your own body, into a state of constant, vigilant third person.

This is the place where ’Cine and ’Naia live, a state much more significant and explicit than the one they physically inhabit at the start of the play: “New York or Hampshire or Jersey,” says Racine dismissively. “Or … Somethin’ like that,” adds Anaia, “Somewhere that don’t feel right.” Young writers tend to have specificity drilled into them as a cardinal virtue, but at moments there’s a purposeful vagueness to Harris’s storytelling that feels rebellious and exhilarating. She’s brave enough to say to hell with the small stuff, or to make a knowing joke of it, and it helps the twins and their journey start to feel mythic. When Racine and Anaia receive a mysterious letter from their long-lost mother, it comes from a rest home in “Oscarville, MS/AL/FL/TX/TN/AR/KY, Dirty South.” We’ve got all we need to know, and then some.

At Folsom Rest Home for the Weary (cue Johnny Cash), the twins meet She, the mother they thought they lost 18 years ago. Though the fire didn’t kill her then, it left her “with a body like uh alligator” and now she lies leprous and wheezing, hooked up to a fleet of machines, unwilling to take her final breath until her daughters do an important job for her. It’s a simple one: “Make your daddy dead … Kill his spirit, then the body, like he did me … Dead, real dead. Lotsa blood is fine.”

Turns out the twins’ sociopathic father broke into the house of his ex-wife, knocked her out and doused her in liquor on the bathroom floor, then set a match to her while her 3-year-old babies watched. As She, Jessica Frances Dukes gives an impressive performance, especially considering that all we ever see of her is her scarred and bandaged head and neck, poking up into the space of a long window in the back wall of Adam Riggs’s claustrophobic, dirty white diorama of a set. She’s caustic and unsentimental — “O, you know. Dyin’,” she answers when her nervous daughters ask her how she’s been — and as full of terrible wrath as the God of the Old Testament. Dukes’s eyes widen and flash maniacally as she tells tells the story of the fire. Like Hamlet’s father with his poisoned body covered in “vile and loathsome crust,” She has no thought for what the act of vengeance might do to the souls of her offspring. She longs for blood, and only her own blood can spill it.

And so the twins set out on their quest westward (all they know is that their father is somewhere “near the City of Angels”), and on the way take to calling their mother God outright. After all, “She made us,” Anaia reasons to herself. Even the Blues Brothers get a nod in Harris’s dark, mischievous universe, as ’Cine and ’Naia announce repeatedly, “We on a mission from God.” It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that they’ll find “The Man,” their father, eventually, and that the bodies will pile up along the way: we know how these stories go. But Harris wisely twists the knife by implying that God’s commandment isn’t the only reason for the sisters’ (especially ’Cine’s) awoken bloodlust. Anger has been building in them all their lives: “We floatin’ like dead leaves,” Racine tells her twin, “We land from time to time to get stepped on but tha’s it. We ain’t got no foundation … I wanna step on somethin’ for once. See what it feels like. Must feel good.”

As Anaia and Racine, Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes are the strong center of the show. Hughes struts like a boxer and hits the spiky cadences of Harris’s text, whether colloquial or lyrical, just right. Fuller, her face covered in an icky mesh of simulated scar tissue, treads Anaia’s more hesitant path deftly: She’s ultimately our North Star, the one we’ll hitch our hearts to, who just might have a chance of surviving this mayhem and leaving it behind without losing her inborn gentleness. They’re working with an excellent supporting cast, whose highlights include the performances of Anthony Cason and Caleb Eberhardt as another set of twins, Riley and Scotch, the sons of Racine and Anaia’s murderous father with his new wife. As the in-the-closet nerd and the cocky, none-too-bright would-be rapper/poet, Cason and Eberhardt create a wicked parody of 16-year-old insecurity and machismo.

It’s ultimately Magar who could push the production further. Though Riggs’s box set plays a few tricks (one of which calls to mind a climactic crash in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, which also originated at Soho Rep), it gives the twins a restricted playing area for much of the play, and within its narrow walls Magar struggles to create a sense of motion. Is God Is is a road-trip play, and some of its most beautiful, resonant text occurs when the sisters are traveling. A flickering TV mounted above the set provides us with scene titles like “Going West” and “Up Into the Hills,” but the current staging often leaves the twins feeling static. And then there’s the violence. Racine chooses a crude murder weapon — a rock in a sock, reminiscent of David’s slingshot — and Harris calls for multiple beatings-to-death onstage. While these are handled cleverly, we’re so close to the action that the attacks become more theatrically interesting (“Oh, that’s how they’re doing that!”) than shocking. I longed for a less literal approach, a visual cacophony of violence that would in fact jolt me, push me to the edge of my seat. The same feeling struck me in regards to the scar-tissue mesh on Anaia’s and She’s faces: it worked, yes, but I couldn’t help wishing for something less deferential to the real, something more uncanny that would make the two actors actually uncomfortable to look at.

Harris’s play is sinister fun as a collage of styles and references, from hip-hop to High Noon. It’s also a disquieting allegory. The twins are in an extraordinary situation, a heightened theatrical reality, but they’re also two young black women who have been brutalized and neglected, insulted and abused, forced to learn to defend themselves from childhood, constantly on the lookout, constantly fighting, constantly afraid. For many, that’s not myth but bitter reality. ’Cine and ’Naia are as full of rage as their mother; rage is their rightful inheritance, and the question of Is God Is becomes, what is one to do with such a legacy? Must it be fulfilled? Can it be escaped?

Is God Is is at Soho Rep.

Theater Review: Is God Is Seeks the Divine