Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Is God Is won the American Playwriting Foundation's 2016 Relentless Award, an award created to honor the late actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, which seeks unproduced plays that "exhibit fearlessness, are not mainstream, exude passion and are relentlessly truthful". Harris' work easily passes that test. Mixed Blood Theatre scored rights to the first production of Is God Is following its Obie award winning premiere at Soho Rep in New York earlier this year, and has brought back to the Twin Cities Ivey-winning actor Dame-Jasmine Hughes (The Wedding Band, Sunset Baby, Pussy Valley), who earned an Obie for her performance in the Soho Rep production.
The play is about twin sisters Racine (Hughes) and Anaia (Chaz Hodges) who were both hideously scarred as toddlers in a fire that killed their mother. The girls grew up in a series of foster homes where they suffered a catalog of abuses. They spend their days, when not at their low wage jobs, applying ice to each other's unhealed wounds. Racine is all energy, restlessly straining against the shackles life has placed upon them. Anaia is gentler, reticent, retreating into acceptance of the way things are.
Then a letter arrives from their mother (Joy Dolo), alive after all these years, but in perpetual agony, her scorched skin a crisp leathery shell. Now she calls her daughters to her side. For Racine, to whom no higher power has ever granted any favors, there is no question but to obey their mother's summonsafter all, she reasons, Mama made them, and hence is their god. Anaia is unsure, fearful of changing their dreadful but predictable routines, but yields to her twin's argument. They find their embittered mother dying with one request before she goes: revenge. She knows who started the fire and she spells her wish out for her daughters: "I want him dead! Real dead!"
Off go the twins, Anaia's insistence that "we ain't killers," overshadowed by Racine's pent-up release as, in the name of god, she able at last to inflict pain, as it was inflicted upon her. They head from the "dirty South" to the California desert, their journey sampling from spaghetti westerns, Quentin Tarantino, hip-hop and sitcom banality. Racine behaves as if she has been deputized by god to right the world's wrongs, and no one is innocent. The end is shocking, and yet not surprising, as these daughters' destinies were forgone by their god/mother's commandment.
As a variation on mythology, the characters in Is God Is are two dimensional, with types that are recognizable but not relatable. Still, Harris has written dialogue that gives each of the characters a voice that mirrors the circumstance of their lives. Much of the humor (and thank god there is humor to see us through this dark, dark parable) comes from the inherent irony in the way each character speaks. Director Nataki Garrett emphasize these distinctions in language as one way in which the story's broad strokes assemble into a mythology, deadly serious beneath the chuckles.
Hughes and Hodges are wonderfully matched as the twin sisters. Hughes is a genius at projecting toughness that is explained away as common sense, easily taking on the Alpha role in her twin-ship. Every chance she gets, she answers a question with "eyup," popping the "p" as if firing a pistol to assert her dominance. Hodgesa San Diego based actor I hope we will see much more of in the Twin Citiesconveys a life based on fear, accommodation, and the knowledge that at the end of the day she is no match for her twin. She speaks as if she fears she is being simple, yet we hear in her voice the wisdom of someone whose low profile has been an instrument for survival. Both actors throw vanity to the winds, their natural beauty hidden by scars (Tessie Burdick's scarily crafted make-up).
As the girls' mother, Joy Dolo (who seems to be everywhere these days) is unrecognizable beneath her burn makeup, as she croaks out her dying wishes with frightening conviction. Kory LaQuess Pullam and Jacob Gibson play a pair of brothers the avenging daughters encounter, with Pullam both hilarious and touching as the uber-nerd Riley and Gibson delightfully clueless as a rap poet wannabe, Scotch. Jessica Rosilyn is spot-on as a middle-aged, middle-class mom having an existential melt down, while Kevin D. West effectively pivots between giddy and grim as Chuck Hall, a corrupt lawyer with a part in the revenge mission. Lastly, Kirkaldy Myers makes a striking impression as the viperous man Anaia and Racine hunt down.
Trevor Bowen and Jeni O'Malley's costumes look fully lived in by each characterand what a witty choice for the garb with which Racine and Anaia dress themselves up, to look presentable before their mother. Christopher Heilman's set is spare, but cleverly incorporates a space behind a venetian blinded window that becomes mother's deathbed, the lawyer's office, Riley and Scotch's suburban home, and a graveyard. Mary Shabatura's lighting scheme shifts to underscore the plot's abrupt rises and falls, while Phillip O'Toole adds to the sense of foreboding with his sound design.
I would guess that Is God Is will not please everyone. It will not please those who cannot abide violence, especially when it is gratuitous, as it seems to be here. On the other hand, the violence is handled discreetly, with no show of splashing blood. In fact, it is telling that the acts of violence in this tale are administered with the most primal of weapons, starting with the fire that occurred long before the tale begins. But, no escaping it, there is a lot of violence in the play. There are characters who seem totally devoid of a moral compass, which some prospective audience members may find distastefulbut, in a universe where a scarred, vengeful mother takes on the mantle of god, what does a moral compass look like? That would seem to be a question playwright Harris is challenging us to ask.
I will admit that I left the theater admiring the stagecraft but not so sure I liked the play. However, the more I think about it, the more I see beneath the surface, and the more grateful I am to have seen the play and discovered the brutally honest voice of its author. Others in the audience seemed to grasp the power of the piece more quickly, so what I can advise is to see Is God Is: If you love it at once, terrific; if not, be open to letting the essence of Racine and Anaia's journey ramble in your mind, and see if it doesn't take you on a journey of your own. The place it takes you may not be pleasant, but it is likely to bear truths that warrant being faced, pleasant or not.
Is God Is, through October 14, 2018, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. Radical Hospitality tickets are free at the door two hours prior to performances, subject to availability. Guaranteed tickets can be purchased in advance for $25. Access Passes guarantee complimentary seating and transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities and their companions. For guaranteed advance tickets. Access Passes and information about "On Our Own Terms" call 612-338-6331 or go to www.mixedblood.com.
Writer: Aleshea Harris; Director: Nataki Garrett; Set Design: Christopher Heilman; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen and Jeni O'Malley; Makeup Design: Tessie Bundick; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Phillip O'Toole; Props Design: Nicole Del Pizzo; Fight Choreographer: Bruce A. Young; Composer: Eric Mayson; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Stage Manager: Raúl Ramos; Assistant Stage Manager: Jorge Rodriguez; Producer: Jack Reuler; Production Manager: Catherine Campbell.
Cast: Joy Dolo (She), Jacob Gibson (Scotch), Chaz Hodges (Anaia), Dame-Jasmine Hughes (Racine), Kirkaldy Myers (Man), Kory LaQuess Pullman (Riley), Jessica Rosilyn (Angie), Kevin D. West (Chuck Hall).