The In-Person Toronto Theatre Review: Obsidian, Canadian Stage and Necessary Angel’s Is God Is
The thumping and crackling fill the air, as the hot flames take root on the walls and the floorboards, thanks to some epic work by sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne (Mirvish/Studio 180’s Oslo) and projection designer Laura Warren (Nighwood’s Unholy) as they deliver with finesse the 2018 play, Is God Is, by the brilliant American writer Aleshea Harris (On Sugerland). This wild ride, reminiscent of a dark American ‘Oedipus Rex‘ reformulated into a modern day violent road trip, rises itself up like a Greek chorus in the Wild West. The action within Sophocles’s play concerns Oedipus’s search for the murderer of Laius in order to end a plague ravaging Thebes, unaware that the killer he is looking for is none other than himself. The journey is the core, with the play unleashing horrific acts of patricide and incest, leaving the central character so overwhelmed with guilt that he proceeds to gouge out his own eyes in despair. This is not exactly the framework within Harris’s Is God Is, but some of the frameworks fit, and many of the horrors remain disturbingly in full view after the truth finally comes to light.
With smoke spilling out from inside the couch center stage, this triumphant and disturbingly strong revenge story of almost Greek proportions opens itself up to a letter containing big news for these two 21-year-old burned twins at the play’s center. It’s from their supposedly dead mother beaconing them to come find her deep down in the Dirty South. She says she is about to die, real soon, igniting the two tied-together sisters to begin a tense odyssey across America, ultimately to find the father that set them and their mother on fire so many years ago. The formula is full of pain and anger, mashed together with an epic world view of abandonment and disturbed attachment, pushed up inside this multi-genre mashed-up traveling tale of Black twins setting their sights forward, on revenge and understanding. It unfolds with an almost hip-hop spaghetti Western vibe, spinning itself upwards like flames licking the hot air, from the Northeast of America, through the Deep South, finally scorching its way to the land of their father, California, where vengeance and disturbance hopefully will find its resting place.
The language spoken resonates magnificently, especially within the oddities on display, thanks to superb work by the actors, playwright, and the dialect coach Jennifer Toohey (Shaw’s The Russian Play), who ushers forth a framework that unleashes some stereotypes and obstacles of a Black woman’s experience in America. With slices of Afropunk on the edges of insanity and sanity, “Make your daddy dead,” is their mother’s fiery order for the two young women at the play’s ultimate core. Portrayed with intense artfulness by the edgy powerhouse Oyin Oladejo (Soulpepper’s Spoon River) as Racine, and the brilliant Vanessa Sears (Obsidian’s Caroline, or Change) as the more “emotional one“, Anaia, the idea of justice through whatever means finds its solid roots inside their intense internal connection. Their mother, who is known as “SHE” or “God,” played determinedly by the powerful Alison Sealy-Smith (Obsidian’s 21 Black Futures), is not going to stay quietly maternal, or play around with the act or idea of forgiveness or empathy- a strong commentary on society’s ideal of how Black women should behave in this troubling world. She has no place for that kind of emotion, especially when she furthers her instructions by stating most emphatically, “Kill his spirit” and “make him all the way dead.” And to bring back the bloody evidence when the quest has been fulfilled. A construction that is so very Ancient Greek mythology.
It’s a powerfully indicative scene and idea, directed with a sharp cutting focus on the epic-ness of this revenge quest by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu (Factory’s Trout Stanley). It crackles with a fire one bit stronger and hotter each and every time she proclaims “dead, dead, dead.” The intensity of that moment between mother and daughters elevates the demand to an almost righteous proclamation from God, embodied by and seen as an angry Black woman, wife, and mother demanding bloody revenge upon her abusive husband and the father of these two disfigured daughters in a manner that they, and we can not ignore.
The patricidal journey is on behalf of “God”, setting its strong-minded roots within a mythical act of vengeful violence. The two sisters, guiding us through the distinct chapters of this Greek quest, play with the yin and yang of anger and emotional hurt, unpacking the real pain of abandonment and betrayal that ushers forth this very focused tale. Registering strongly from within its well-crafted and moveable walls, the creative team; set designer Ken Mackenzie (Canadian Stage’s Sweat); lighting designer Raha Javanfar (Soulpepper’s Brothers Size), and costume designer Ming Wong (Shaw’s Trouble in Mind), deliver forth, as we watch the two women flip through the chapters that will bring the story to its finale. High on top of a California mounting, the ending stands uncomfortably inside the encounter with the man that so viciously set fire to their mother and caused such irreversible pain within themselves, physically and emotionally scarred them for life, and at that moment, we find truth, or at least some sort of reconciliation.
Their epic road trip west to, most naturally, the California hills bring them into direct contact with numerous Greek-like challenges that they must overcome in order to proceed, starting with their dad’s former lawyer Chuck, played solidly by Matthew G. Brown (Drayton’s Sister Act); followed by their worn-out stepmother Angie, dynamically portrayed by Sabryn Rock (Mirvish’s Fun Home); and their emotional mirrored counterparts and twin half-brothers, Riley and Scotch, well formed by Micah Woods (Fringe’s RAGE AGAINST The Complacent) and Savion Roach (ARC/Crows’ Gloria). Each run-in is an encounter that will leave them and you a bit breathless as we watch rage start to take hold of Racine, strengthening her resolve, leaving Sears’ Anaia grappling with her more complicated emotional response.
The last challenge of the Is God Is odyssey arrives, finally, in the menacingly calm form of their actual father, well played by Tyrone Benskin (Segal Center’s Marjorie Prime). That engagement is as complex and disturbing as one might imagine, given the high bloody body count that the play has delivered most dynamically up to that mountain top point. It’s a strange and exhilerating end to a journey heavy with symbolism and potential insights into defining America’s racist ideals, a road trip that becomes almost too exhausting to witness at some points. But the efforts do pay off in the end. It asks, underneath the harsh bloody murders within, a myriad of questions about the cycle of violence against Black women in America (and beyond). Questions that need to be asked, even if the answers are bloody difficult to arrive at.
Harris’s play is super smart and very aware, living and breathing in an unnatural setting that only heightens the epic-ness of the journey taken, and the violence it has delivered. Other productions, like the one in 2018 at NYC’s Soho Rep or UK’s Royal Theatre, have emphasised the fast paced nihilism and the dark humor of the play, but this one-act production as presented here by Obsidian Theatre, Canadian Stage and Necessary Angel Theatre, feels heavy, ancient, tragic, and insightfully modern all at once. At times I wanted the two women to push that pedal to the metal and drive forward to the ultimate conclusion a bit faster, but that discomfort within might be as meaningful and deliberate as the whole symbolic odyssey. So settle yourself in, buckle your seatbelts, and get ready for some turbulence along the way. The destination at the end of Is God Is is well worth the bumps on the road.
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