IS GOD IS
IS GOD IS, Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, 19 September - 21 October 2023. Photography by Pia Johnson
In 2016 US playwright Aleshea Harris was interviewed in HuffPost about “responding to a world which no longer made sense.” She had a name as a dynamic performance poet but was gaining a wider audience with What To Send Up When It Goes Down. This theatrical work was created as “a tool that communities can access when they're in crisis after someone has been killed.” And as #BlackLivesMatter has highlighted since 2013, Black communities across the US were familiar with that.
As a theatre student and writer, Harris was initially influenced by the Absurd and Ionesco, although she said, “Absurdism is a name for a way of responding to a world which no longer makes sense. It doesn't start or end with Europe in the 1950s, though dominant culture would have us think so.”
Out of this belief came Is God Is. First staged Off-Broadway in 2018, the play is now a multi-award winner and her break-out work. It’s a classic story of male violence against women that could be anywhere, any time: an ancient Greek theatre, or Camp Hill, Queensland 2020, for instance. In the play, a Southern woman and her twin girls are set alight by a disgruntled husband, “Man”. They survive but “She” is incapacitated for life and sends her daughters away to the North. Man disappears to a new life in California.
Is God Is opens with the twins Anaia (Henrietta Enyonam Amevor) and Racine (Masego Pitso) receiving a letter from their mother summoning them to her deathbed. Their reactions to the letter reflect how the girls carry their burn scars. Introspective “emotional” Anaia has been deeply affected by facial disfigurement, while Racine’s cheeky ebullience thinly disguises deep rage. Nevertheless, they decide to visit their mother.
Designer Renée Mulder has fashioned a backdrop of semi-opaque plastic sheeting and a small, raw timber “house” on an empty stage. Cleverly lit by Jenny Hector, it’s turned on its axis to signify travel and then, a side is opened to reveal a new scene. The first is mother – She, God – (Cessalee Stovall) looking like an illuminated religious relic as she commands the girls to find their father and kill him. In their different ways, Anaia and Racine finally come around to agreeing and they set off for California.
It’s at this point, probably, that an audience neatly divides in two. There are those who are horrified by revenge, murder, and extreme violence; and there are those for whom Harris speaks when she said, “…unfortunately what people outside of the experience say, or don't say, or say without saying, is that you shouldn't be mad about it, that you just need to get over it and carry on, and I think that that takes a toll.” And it’s a toll that half the audience (women of all ages, mainly) is no longer willing to pay.
Co-directed with style and discipline by Zindzi Okenyo and Shari Sebbens, the production initially skips along with much laughter and sass, albeit with some gasp-making moments. As a co-production with Melbourne Theatre Company, it arrives in Sydney well run-in and on a performance high. The twins meet a drunken, suicidal lawyer (Patrick Williams). Between pills and slugs of tequila, he directs them to a yellow-painted house with teal shutters, where their father has more twins (Grant Young and Darius Williams) and a wife, Angie (Clare Chihambakwe). All four are, in their different ways, repellent and hilarious. It’s shocking and a relief to feel justified and appalled by the journey towards retribution.
What finally happens is more Euripides than Tarantino and is gloriously realised in play, production, and performance. Kevin Copeland as Man (the father/husband made anonymous, in fact) has the unenviable role of arriving late in the piece when tensions are running high in anticipation. He is a magisterial, gleaming vision of entitlement and menace and so makes sense and right of all that has gone before and is to come.
In the opening night audience, many women left on a cheering, exultant high. Others did not. One lemon-lipped man thought the violence was “gratuitous”, but he would, wouldn’t he? Is God Is offers thrilling entertainment and many insights. Also a realisation of how far Australia’s immigrant Black performance communities have come, despite everything. Recommended without reservation.