Content Warning: this review contains discussions and references around domestic violence, gender-based violence, and childhood trauma.
Is God Is opens with a small innocent-looking wooden house set against clear plastic tarps reminiscent of a premeditated murder scene. A woman, whose head is a house, walks on stage holding two Black babies while a haunting silhouette appears. Set and costume designer Renée Mulder has masterfully executed the chilling contrast between the darkness of the past and the darkness to come.
A well-crafted modern day revenge tragedy, Is God Is is a multi award-winning play by US playwright Aleshea Harris, now making its Australian debut in a production by the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Audiences are introduced to twin protagonists Anaia (Henrietta Enyonam Amevor) and Racine (Masego Pitso) – Anaia the ’emotional’ one and Racine the one with deep seated anger. As children the twins were abandoned by their mother, but 18 years later she has summoned them. The twins liken the life-giving power of the mother to ‘God’, and ultimately have agreed to meet her.
The mother, or ‘God’ is lying on an Afro-futuristic palliative bed that evokes a feeling of reverence and wittily plays into the Biblical references of the story of the twins arrival. Played by Cessalee Stovall, ‘God’ gives a gut-wrenching and captivating account of the violence inflicted by their deadbeat father, and of physical and psychological trauma. ‘God’ tells the twins that it is her dying wish to ‘make your daddy dead’.
Unfortunately, this situation is all too familiar in reality, where a deadbeat father walks out on his family to restart his life with a younger, fairer-skinned woman. Harris’ play explores how and why it can be possible for someone to move on with no accountability, and the serious implications for children involved through the lens of a revenge fantasy. The twins embark on a twisted Western-type journey, complemented by enchanting lighting and sound design choices, in their quest to fulfil their mother’s wishes.
Pitso delivers an impressive and solid performance as Racine’s anger transforms into a rage that results in the deaths of many. While Amevor brilliantly develops her character from the meeker twin into someone who rises to the challenge to protect her sister and battle with their daunting father, played by Kevin Copeland.
The subject matter is heavy and handled with care from the highly skilled co-directors Zindzi Okenyo and Shari Sebbens. Okenyo and Sebbens directed the highly applauded seven methods of killing kylie jenner and once again their strong voices shine through. Their choice of employing dark comedy further elevates the complexities of the play, which are brought to life by an ensemble that includes Patrick Williams, Darius Williams, Grant Young and Claire Chihambakwe. While the combat scenes are engaging, it is unclear whether they are supposed to be convincing or a non-contact fighting artistic choice; clarity could have further strengthened the performance.
As it draws to a close, the play circles back to ‘God’, now in a smoky dystopian world. Even as audiences expect calmness, the sense of uneasiness lingers. The audience is reminded that it was never revealed why the twins were abandoned by their mother, and are left gasping at the suspense.
Overall, Is God Is is an enthralling fusion-genre revenge tragedy that highlights Black excellence in theatre.
Is God Is by Aleshea Harris
A Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company co-production
co-Directors: Zindzi Okenyo and Shari Sebbens
Lighting Designer: Jenny Hector
Composer and Sound Designer: Joe Paradise Lui
Intimacy Coordinator: Amy Cater
Fight Choreographer: Lyndall Grant
Set and Costume Designer: Renée Mulder
Assistant Director: Kuda Mapeza
Community Engagement: (Lead) Effie Nkrumah (Team Members) Noah Da Costa and Lydia Tesema
Voice Coach: Lisa Dallinger
Accent Coaches: Amani Dorn and Rachel Finley
Cast: Henrietta Enyonam Amevor, Masego Pitso, Cessalee Stovall, Patrick Williams, Darius Williams, Grant Young, Claire Chihambakwe and Kevin Copeland
Is God Is will be performed until 15 July 2023.