By SHARON EBERSON
Take a family tragedy from Greek mythology, pepper it with Shakespeare most foul and a Tarantino revenge fantasy, tie it together with the unbreakable bond of twin sisters, and then turn up the heat.
That will give you some idea of the fury and, dare I say, wicked fun of Is God Is, now rattling nerves and winning hearts at barebones’ Braddock Black Box theater.
A modern family drama with a pitch-black comedic heart, it’s a tale that hints of reverence for a certain Demon Barber, or the Clint Eastwood character in every Spaghetti Western he ever made, or some Training Day-style outrage.
The body count and rock in a sock hold clues to the direction of Aleshea Harris’ allegory about the sins of the father visited upon his children – and coming back to haunt him.
All of which is to say that Is God Is is just the kind of exhilarating roller-coaster ride that has shaken and stirred the barebones faithful for 20 seasons.
The 2016 play has long been on artistic director Patrick Jordan’s to-do list, so much does it fit his penchant for a bloody good yarn and working with talented folks such as actor-director Javon Johnson (Tyler Perry‘s The Oval), who in 2017 starred in barebones’ The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
Is God Is tells the tale of twin sisters Anaia and Racine (Sarai Quinice and Shannon Williams), both scarred inside and out from a fire when they were toddlers. As young adults, they cling to and uplift each other as only twins can.
From left, Kim El as She reconnects with her daughters, played by Sarai Quinice and Shannon Williams, in Is God Is, now playing in Braddock.
In short order, the twins barely-scraping-by existence is upended, and they are tasked to become as contemporary Furies of Greek lore.
First, they are reunited with their demanding, bed-ridden mother (Kim El), badly burned in the same fire 18 years earlier and long thought dead. Mom – “She,” in your program – has sent for her girls to order them on a mission: Take revenge on the “Man” responsible for all their woes, the twins’ father, who set the fire and abandoned his family.
There is no question in Racine’s mind that they will carry out the assassination. The answer to “Who is God?” is clear to her, at least. As she tells her twin, “She made us, didn’t she?” If that isn’t crystal, a screen gives us prompts, so that when the twins find their mother in a rest-care facility, the screen reads “Before God.”
It crossed my mind that this may be a double-edged sword. Are they standing in the presence of God, the Mother, or is this the “before,” on the way to the Father? Or both?
Either way, these girls have been given a tenfold raw deal, and they run with it.
The give-and-take between Quinice and Williams on their journey, with Anaia pulled along in the wake of Racine’s determination, is as affecting as it is disturbing.
Finding dad requires a stop to see Chuck Hall – Garbie Dukes’ larger-than-life attorney – who is experiencing some scorching weather. When the twins discover that their father is living in sunny California, with a new family, well, let’s just say all hell is about to be visited on the yellow house on the hill.
There, the twins first encounter their father’s wife, Kelsey Robinson as Angie, the very portrait of a “real housewife” who has had enough of suburban life, and her twin teenage boys, studious Riley (Kivon Reeves) and egocentric poet Scotch (Todd Griffin).
They represent “the haves” – and all the things the twins grew up without.
On Thursday, Rico Romalus Parker stepped into the role of “Man” on very short notice, for Johnson and also his busy understudy, Wali Jamal. Parker exudes a powerful presence, as seen in productions at Pittsburgh Public, Quantum and Pittsburgh Playwrights theater companies, so it was no surprise that only the slip of paper in our programs gave him away.
Kelsey Robinson (front center) is a desperate housewife and mother to twins (Kivon Reeves and Todd Griffin) in Is God Is. (barebones productions)
The set may seem basic at first glance. Similar to the plays debut at New York’s Soho Rep, there is a rectangular upstage window that has curtains, opened to view mother’s room, Chuck’s office and the inside of father’s house. But looks may be deceiving, so prepare for a surprise or two emanating from the Bingo O’Malley Theater stage. The action is boosted by Andrew David Ostrowski’s evocative lighting, while Tolan FX and fight director Randy Kovitz each have a helping hand in violent scenes that are shocking, yet inevitable.
Johnson directs an ensemble that works like sign posts on a well-marked road – a matter-of-fact order to commit patricide, the wild musings of disreputable lawyer, a desperate housewife’s yearnings – working toward a goal. That it goes off the rails here and there is to be expected, such is the nature of Harris’ master plan.
The play was a critical success in its earlier incarnations, winning three Obie Awards in 2017, including for playwright Harris. It had previously earned the American Playwriting Foundation’s Relentless Award in 2016.
As the relentless twins took to their task, what kept running through my mind wasn’t so much “Is God?,” as it was, “Where is God?” These young women, burned and scarred in so many ways, tugged at my heartstrings. I may not have liked the bloody path that was their destiny, but I couldn’t help but root for them.
Remaining dates for Is God Is, at barebones’ Braddock Black Box, 1211 Braddock Ave., are Thursday through Sunday, March 9-12. Tickets and information: https://www.barebonesproductions.com/is-god-is.
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