Is God Is by Aleshea Harris, Canadian Premiere

Marilyn & Charles Baillie Theatre (formerly Berkeley Street Theatre)

Marilyn & Charles Baillie Theatre (formerly Berkeley Street Theatre)

Joe Szekeres

At times Tarantinoesque while at other times spaghetti westernish, Aleshea Harris’s ‘Is God Is’ fiercely tackles the quest for retributive justice

One of the elements of live theatre that I have so dearly missed is how its immediate visual impact can deliver such intense emotions that have left me breathless.

These visual impacts can say so much in so little and can say so much in a lot.

The visual impacts of Aleshea Harris’s opening night ‘Is God Is’ became a hell of a jarring ride that I so desperately wanted to finish watching because I became invested in the lives of each of these characters, their warts and all, and I wanted to see what happened to them. And just like in any Quentin Tarantino film or the Sergio Leone 60s spaghetti westerns, things don’t always end up the way they should.

And that’s the appeal of these two aforementioned film genres which made people go to the movies.

And that’s why you should get yourselves to ‘Is God Is’, a blistering mythic tale of a quest to right wrongs that were committed.

Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu’s programme note explains some important elements of which we are not to lose sight: “‘Is God Is’ takes the experiences of Black women and Black people and mythologizes them and creating a story that is …fuelled with a propulsive action that most certainly brings this story to life.” Otu’s creatively innovative and imaginative vision thrusts this quixotic tale to become a powerhouse and provocative thriller with first class performers who seize their scenes with great aplomb.

But underneath this layer lies a societal issue of importance to remember.

A reminder though this opening night performance was difficult both to watch and to hear as there are some implied nasty moments and some true to life actions where violence occurs. Yet when I shut my eyes momentarily because I didn’t want to envision what was happening, merely hearing and listening to the action just heightened the scene exponentially in my mind even further. There are disconcerting times throughout the 90-minutes where I found myself either laughing or smiling and then recoiling wondering why that was amusing.

For me, that’s the sign of good drama when we can be made to feel uncomfortable in what we are watching. And we keep watching for that very reason.

Twins Racine and Anaia (superlative performances by Oyin Oladejo and Vanessa Sears) receive a letter to visit their mother identified as She (tour de force work by Alison Sealy-Smith) who never leaves her hospital bed as she suffers from burned singed flesh caused by her ex- husband (unnerving work by Tyrone Benskin) identified as Man who has now re-married. The matriarchal order comes from She: “Make your Daddy dead. Dead. Dead. Dead” since he is responsible for both her physical burned scars and theirs when the twins were babies.

Racine and Anaia literally take their mother at her words and the carnage quest for revenge begins from the Dirty South to the Hollywood Hills. Letting no one stand in their way, Racine and Anaia uncover the secrets of the mysterious fire that tore their family apart decades earlier.

‘Is God Is’ though is not just merely a story simply of revenge. It has festered for years caused through familial and societal neglect and abandonment whereby the experiences of the play’s characters become “unapologetic and free” as Director Otu stated in her Programme Notes.

Remarkably impressive supporting work both on stage and behind the scenes make ‘Is God Is’ an unforgettable production. As sleazy, drunken lawyer Chuck Hall, Matthew G. Brown creepily made my skin crawl. Sabryn Rock as Man’s second wife, Angie, inherently just knows something is not right but continues living the life she knows. My Co-operative Education student and invited guest laughed out loud at Angie hollering at her two sons, Scotch (Savion Roach) and Riley (Micah Woods), to help bring the groceries up from the car as she said that is true to life what it’s like in trying to get young boys to help with the groceries. Again, my Co-Operative Education reiterated how she has real personal experience with her younger brothers.

In speaking further about Scotch and Riley, I smiled in recognizing the ironic and humorous connection playwright Harris makes between Racine and Anaia and Man’s twin sons with Angie. A few moments of needed comic relief for me in this scene where Roach as Scotch swimmingly eats up his moment in proving he’s going to be the next rad rap writer, but realistically isn’t. Micah Woods’s amusing fascination with making and eating arugula salad continues to offer once again that much needed few minutes to laugh before the story continues its narrative a la Greek mythology.

Raha Javanfar’s lighting design beautifully and stark neon and white fluorescent glows both heighten while subtly underscoring dramatic moments, when necessary, especially when there is the suggestion of blood, oh so much blood. Ken MacKenzie’s functional set design of the two gates worked well in framing the story like a book. As the audience is introduced to the various chapter titles of this myth, the gates both open and close like a child’s storybook as the sisters travel in meeting people. Laura Warren’s Projection Designs of the various locales effectively introduced the locale setting and the title of the chapter. Ming Wong’s costumes suitably delineated the various characters and their idiosyncrasies.

Final Comments: Sometimes aggressively assertive in its storytelling with moments of essential humour, the strength of this ‘Is God Is’ lies in its denoting the voices of marginalized individuals who so desperately crave to be heard in a world that doesn’t appear to listen and hear society’s inherent problems and issues.

Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

Covid protocols in effect at the theatre

Production runs to May 22 at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street Toronto. For tickets, visit www.canadianstage.com or call 416-368-3110

IS GOD IS by Aleshea Harris Canadian Premiere
An Obsidian Theatre Company, Necessary Angel Theatre Company and Canadian Stage Co-production

Directed By Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
Assistant Director: daniel jelani ellis
With Tyrone Benskin, Matthew G Brown, Oyin Oladejo, Savion Roach, Sabryn Rock, Alison Sealy-Smith, Vanessa Sears, Micah Woods
Stage Manager: Emilie Aubin
Assistant Stage Manager: Ada Aguilar
Lighting Designer: Raha Javanfar
Set Designer: Ken Mackenzie
Sound Designer: Thomas Ryder Payne
Costume Designer: Ming Wong
Video Designer: Laura Warren
Movement Director: Jaz 'Fairy J' Simone
Casting Consultant: Hannah Antaki

Abstract Building
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