Theater review by Helen Shaw
The title of Aleshea Harris’s excellent revenge fantasy Is God Is sounds like a line from the Louis Jordan song “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” There’s syncopated swing in both the play and the song—and accusation, too, all pivoting around the terrifying changeableness of women. Harris’s eerie text adopts other musical references; the script’s cover page says the play “takes its cues from the ancient, the modern, the tragic, the Spaghetti Western, hip-hop and Afropunk.” Cardi B plays after the final blackout, but the underlying structure is that of some old ballad: Two women wreak continual vengeance in stanza after stanza.
Anaia (Alfie Fuller) is savagely burned, with scars covering her face; her twin sister, Racine (Dame-Jasmine Hughes), has suffered too. (Racine’s “the rough one who still got some pretty to her,” because her scars only crawl down one arm.) The twins escaped the fire they think killed their mother 18 years ago, when they were three, but today She (Jessica Frances Dukes) has finally summoned them to hear the truth. Lying in a hospital bed, turned into “an alligator” by her own burns, their mother tells about the day their father set her on fire—and she gives them a task. They must kill him—more, they must kill everyone around him.
The women leave for the West (a television displays chapter titles in the Gunsmoke font), where they draw closer and closer to their prey: their father’s new “bougie” wife, Angie (Nehassaiu deGannes); his hilarious twin sons, the self-styled poet Scotch (Caleb Eberhardt) and the arugula-loving Riley (Anthony Cason); and finally, the Man himself (Teagle F. Bougere), who enters with his black hat tipped down over his eyes like Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Characters crack jokes, but the play is far more tragedy than comedy: Racine’s chosen weapon is a rock in a sock, because it reminds her of the story of Cain and Abel. (No one gets out of that one well, either.)
Although the action in Taibi Magar’s excellent Soho Rep production happens in two planes—either in a thin slice of stage right against the front row or in the flat space seen through a long horizontal window in the back wall—it feels appropriately epic. Set designer Adam Rigg and sound designer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste create a whole landscape out of a single white wall, and the performances are strong, particularly by the two pairs of twins. Harris writes so blisteringly that the actors could just let the language’s flames carry them along. But the masterful Hughes proves to be the perfect kindling for it, and Fuller is heartbreaking.
So is God is or is God ain’t? The desert bleakness of Harris’s quasi-biblical fable exists in the awful space between the two. Racine, flipping her hair, calls their mother god: “Well she made us didn’t she?” The cautious Anaia replies, “You gon’ get struck down.” They’re both right. Deny her or worship her, but the cost is the same: blood, tribute, dust, pain. There’s a reason Harris doesn’t put a question mark in the title. In a work this furious and incandescent, there’s no space for answers—only prophecy.
Soho Rep (Off Broadway). By Aleshea Harris. Directed by Taibi Magar. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.