God is a woman, and she is vengeful.
If Jordan Peele was a theatre creator, Is God Is, presented by Canadian Stage, Obsidian Theatre, and Necessary Angel Theatre Company would be right up his alley. A few weeks back I realized I had not yet seen a thriller theatre piece in Toronto. Luckily, Is God Is came to fill that void and did not disappoint. In the way Peele made Luniz and Michael Marshall’s “I Got 5 On It” now sends chills up my spine, the tune of “Hush Little Baby” may now do the same — director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu and assistant director daniel jelani ellis have found the perfect balance of horror and humour for a theatrical space, oftentimes through music.
Is God Is tackles intergenerational trauma, misogynoir, obligation, and rage — so much justified rage. The story follows twin sisters completing a mission after receiving a message from god (their mother). On this mission their task is to kill a man — the man who tried to kill them, and who tried to kill god. As the Bible passage says: “For he who has raised his fist against God, defying the Almighty, must be stomped the F— out.”
Well, not really, but Is God Is does have heavy ties to Black spirituality and Christianity. The two twins, Racine and Anaia, get in the habit of referring to their mother as God. As their creator, could she be anything else? Even if it is after eighteen years of silence, when God calls, you must answer. Because She has asked them to, Anaia and Racine must complete the task, even if it is a cardinal sin; after all, it’s not as if this is the first time God has asked for blood to be shed.
As the piece progresses, we travel with Racine and Anaia on their quest for retribution. Aiding the lighting, the set (Ken MacKenzie) helps transport audiences into the different locations. We are transferred from the South of the US to Hollywood, with action also taking place on the long road between them. On the journey audiences really get the chance to know the sisters. Actors Vanessa Sears (Anaia) and Oyin Oladejo (Racine) show a true, authentic bond as sisters. They often play the two sides of a choice, embodying the shoulder angel and devil. Even though an action may feel morally wrong, it is always understandable why a person might make this choice.
The piece is heavy. As Black folk we often deal with our pains with laughter: both the text of Is God Is and its delivery afford space for that. When the twins are about to see their mother for the first time since the fire which almost killed her, she lays in a hospital bed. As she approaches telling her daughters why she has called them in, the conversation is riddled with light banter before the truth comes out, that this was not just a fire — it was a deliberate act unleashed upon the family by the girls’ father. After revealing the truth, the twins’ mother sends them on a mission to kill the man who did this to them, and asks them to bring back a part of him as proof. In the process of completing the mission, the twins leave a trail of blood wherever they go, and potentially innocent by-standers get caught in the crossfire. The piece does not shy away from discomfort: moments of grief and pain are not cut short. When harm is inflicted upon a person there is space given for them to feel that loss. Pain is not something Is God Is lets us easily bypass.
There is quite a bit of violence vis-à-vis brute force. Murder weapon of choice: rock in a sock. If you are squeamish and not a fan of blood, do not worry — you should be fine. Unsuspend your disbelief and you will feel okay knowing that the actors are perfectly safe, and there is no wet or spurting blood. Most instances of blood are instead suggested by lighting, and accolades must go out to not only the actors, but to the lighting (Raha Javanfar), sound (Thomas Ryder Payne), and video (Layra Warren) designers along with the movement director (Jaz ‘Fairy J’ Simone). These design elements start the piece off strong with an intense introductory sequence which sets the tone for the work, in which lighting and video projection are used to symbolize the initial fire that set the twins on this lifepath. The fire dies down and the play title is projected onto the set: Is God Is.
On the other hand, if you are a person who is empathetic, the story may leave you morally conflicted. Is “an eye for an eye” a proper means of justice? Are we allowed to take matters into our own hands in order to be conduits for karma? Or is that something that is meant to be left for the universe or for God to sort out? What happens when God is the one to ask us to sin? Who then bares that sin, and will we ever be free of it? Is God Is was a delicious watch which left me with questions about mortality and sin, but also left me content with the story and its conclusion. I would recommend taking a friend so you can digest it together, or just to have someone to walk home with — it’s a heavy piece. After (or before) watching the show, check out the Spotify playlist specifically curated for Is God Is, too.
Is God Is runs at Canadian Stage through May 22. Tickets are available here.
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