If plays are similar to living organisms, the mark of a great work must be its adaptability. If its power remains undeniable in a multimillion-dollar staging, as well as in a high school production. If its words stir the soul on the page, but also reveal new layers when delivered by actors on stage.
About two years ago when I first read Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is, I was impressed by the playwright’s ability to combine genres and discover something that felt primordial and new. When I saw the Soho Rep production, I was taken aback by the visions it elicited in director Taibi Magar, who imagined it like the pop-up book version of a Southern Gothic fairytale. And listening to the Wilma Theater audio version, I was enthralled by the musicality in Harris’ words, and the way in which her characters’ journey is the stuff of legends, but their pleas remain as urgent as those of our neighbors.
In director James Ijames’ audio play, Harris’ words take on the form of echoes of ghosts doomed to repeat a cursed history they had no part in creating. When the play begins, twin sisters Anaia and Racine are summoned to the Folsom Rest Home for the Weary where their mother lies on her deathbed. The girls haven’t seen her in years, “We got a mama?” asks Anaia, puzzled not only by the invitation, but also by how the woman they presumed dead has found them.
As with many things in the play, this eerie bid for the sisters’ presence, is rooted not in anything related to naturalism, but in the mystical quality of myth, where the extraordinary occurs so that heroes can fulfill fateful missions.
When they arrive to meet their maker, her request is a simple one, they must find their father and “kill his spirit, then the body.” The sisters, who spent their lives from foster family to family, suddenly learn their father is alive as well. More than that, he’s the reason why they became orphans under the system. When they were nothing but babies, he set them all on fire, permanently incapacitating their mother, and leaving baby Racine with burns that rendered her body undesirable but allowed her soul to flourish (“‘Naia is trapped in a prison of sweetness. Girl so ugly don’t get to be mean,” says her sister).
In Ovid’s version of the Greek myths, Medusa had been a woman so beautiful that the god Poseidon raped her in Athena’s temple. Rather than punishing the abusive god, Athena transformed the beautiful Medusa into a creature with snakes for hair, whose monstrous face transformed men into stone with a mere glance. It’s also a violent man who transformed Anaia and Racine into modern gorgons, sent to avenge a mother they begin referring to as God.
Although the sisters assure their mother they are no killers, they agree to her request and the play then takes on the shape of a road trip, as they set on their journey. Daniel Ison’s detailed sound design and original music bring out the pulpy undertones in Harris’ script, as the sisters shed the remains of their innocence to become literal femmes fatales, vanquishing those who stand in their way.
The cast led by Brett Ashley Robinson and Danielle Leneé as Anaia and Racine respectively, bring out the complexity and humanity of the characters through soulful work. Leneé’s nuance as Racine goes from a being of purity into a tortured soul pierces the heart, while Robinson’s no-nonsense approach to Anaia feels empowering, even as she expresses her desire for revenge.
As the title God (or She as her character is named in the script), Melanye Finister gives her voice the tone of someone who’s died and come back to whisper a warning, while Taysha Marie Canales provides some comedic relief as the unaware Angie, a woman who unbeknownst to herself is perpetuating Athena’s mistake of believing women who are attacked by men are complicit in their own destiny.
Lindsay Smiling’s chilling portrayal of the twins’ father gave me chills. His delivery of the line “I didn’t try to kill you all. Just her,” among the most terrifying things I’ve heard through my headphones. Although the play is dense and there are several moments of violence, and the Wilma Theater’s website suggests one should take breaks if needed, there is something almost addictive about Harris’ play. Even knowing what was coming, I couldn’t stop listening.
In many ways, it was almost revitalizing to listen to the play the day after Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivered an instantly iconic speech about the rampant misogyny in Congress to her fellow elected officials in the House of Representatives. As Ocasio-Cortez expressed “I am someone’s daughter too,” in response to the insults she had received recently by Congressman Ted Yoho, and generally throughout her life, I couldn’t stop thinking about Anaia and Racine, their thirst for justice recontextualized in a world where men simply refuse to listen to women.
The father in Is God Is, has no regard for the women who were once in his life, deeming them disposable as he moves on to create a new life, completely unbothered by the gravity of his sins. Harris highlights the many opportunities men are given by society by using mirrors as a metaphor. The sisters meet different versions of themselves later in the play, a reminder about the endless second chances men are given when women fight so hard to justify just one.
Although in no way does the play incite to violence, it certainly makes the desire for revenge understandable, especially when human-made laws fail to provide justice. Listening to Is God Is, reminded me of another of Harris’ plays, the indelible What to Send Up When It Goes Down, her ritualistic take on the violence exerted on Black bodies in the United States.
Although Is God Is happens to be a more traditional drama in terms of narrative structure, with both works, Harris has positioned herself as heir and preacher of the stories we pass on generation to generation. The ones our mothers heard from their mothers, and which we’re meant to pass on to our offspring, in hopes we finally learn the lesson. While we heed the ancestral warning, we’re blessed to have Harris living in this era, because for now, if she doesn’t tell these stories, who will?