Tuesday, September 10, 2019

“Is God Is” channels mythology

Maya Burton and Kamaria Hallums-Harris in Is God Is (Chris Bennion)
Is God Is
Washington Ensemble Theatre and The Hansberry Project
Through September 23, 2019

It’s not likely that playwright Aleshea Harris is that familiar with local Book-It Repertory Theatre, but her dialogue-as-narration in her play, Is God Is, is strikingly like the “Book-It style” we’ve gotten used to. Twin sisters Racine (‘Cine) and Anaia (‘Naia) describe each other to the audience as they discuss a letter that has arrived from God. It’s from their mother, who they believed was dead, and from whom they have not heard for at least 18 years!

They describe their lives growing up in horrific-sounding foster care as they try to cope with the sudden news that their mother wants to see them. They speak of her as God because she “made” them, so therefore, they are beholden to her in the way they’d be to God.

They determine they need to go see her. The letter comes from a rest home in “Oscarville, MS/AL/FL/TX/TN/AR/KY, Dirty South” followed by a zip code so long that you lose track of the numbers. This helps put the journey on track to be “mythic” in nature. Outside of or bigger than real life.

When they arrive, they find their mother covered in burns, completely disfigured. They revisit their history, as God describes why they all have burns on their bodies and she describes their father setting her on fire as the toddler girls watch. God then commands them to find him and make him “dead, real dead. Lots of blood is fine.”

Preview information about the play describes that Harris was inspired by “Spaghetti Westerns, contemporary myths, stories of black women. Also the futility and desperation that comes from cyclical violence, suggesting that stories of revenge feel so good and so bad.”

A warning from Washington Ensemble Theatre says, “This play is bloody and brutal. It is harsh, harsh, harsh. Please be advised that the content includes spousal abuse, violence, overdose, murder, death, the use of fog and strobe lights, and rocks in socks.”

Kamaria Hallums-Harris and ‘Cine and Maya Burton as ‘Naia do solid work in these complex roles. Burton has a clearer path because her character is dubbed “the emotional one.” Hallums-Harris is more forceful, but also less nuanced. The play is directed by Lava Alapai, from Portland, who directs at a kind of breakneck speed and it feels like a lot of subtlety gets lost that way.

Initially, the set intrigues with a complex vision of various rocky levels with horizontal stick curtains that get pulled up to reveal or blur areas, and a lot of cloth sticking out that makes the front look extremely poverty-stricken. As the play unfolds, the intricacies of Lex Marcos’ design seem to overpower the script. It seems intentional that the audience can see “dead bodies” get up and walk away, but it’s not clear what the intention is for.

More successful is the beautiful scar work which may be credited to costumer Ricky German, who appears to use nylon stockings (my guess) to create burned skin, and a sheer orange cloth covering for Laura Steele as the mother who is completely obscured under burns. Brace Evans plays the father, Charles Antoni as Riley and Tre Scott as Scotch are 16-year-old twin half-brothers.  

The allegorical aspect of Greek myth is an uneasy footing for the play. Revenge on the father seems completely fitting, since he severely hurt all of them. But extending that revenge to the rest of the family, while often fitting the Greek mythology model, seems less reasonable and less justified when kicking the time period into our current century.

Some entertainment nods, like to the Blues Brothers, hip hop, and especially to The Andy Griffith Show (Evans has to whistle that whole theme song), are meant to be funny, but this iteration is so grim that it seems impossible to laugh at it. It appears the script might want us to feel relief for the twins that they get their desired revenge, but that wasn’t what I felt on the way out. I just felt drained.

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