Stage

Is God Is at Rec Room Arts Delivers Vengeance and Violence With an Asterisk

Jessica T. Johnson and Comfort Ifeoma Katchy in Is God Is.
Jessica T. Johnson and Comfort Ifeoma Katchy in Is God Is. Photo by Tasha Gorel
“I wanna stomp on something for once, see what it feels like.”

It’s a thought with ample justification for any Black woman in America. However, when 18-year-old Racine says it in Aleshea Harris’ play, Is God Is, its meaning isn't weighted with presumed politics, history, or race. It’s stone-cold vengeance, deliciously pure and simple.

And why not? Westerns have been doing it for years. Greek tragedies are full of them. Tarantino has made millions floating the genre. Why shouldn't Black characters get their own violent, gory, retribution story where white people factor not one iota. Where the tropes of Black victimhood are thrown off for a more generically biblical type of payback.

In Harris' hands, we get all this with the added bonus of a feminist twist in a production that doesn’t quite bring the full juice to the stage.

Twins Racine (Jessica T. Johnson) and Anaia (Comfort Ifeoma Katchy) have bodies scarred from the fire that killed their mother and wounded them 18 years ago. But when a letter arrives, the girls learn that their mother (Kimberly Hicks) is still alive, barely, and wants to see them.

It’s like a summons from God; she made the twins, after all, so God is how the girls decide to refer to her. It’s a righteous dynamic Harris sets up between the twins and their mother, necessary for the hand of God work they’ll be asked to do.

Smartly staged behind a scrim to blur her figure and allow us to imagine her unspeakable full-body fire damage, the twins' mother tells them the brutal details of the blaze. It was their father who set the fire, left them all there for dead, and then went to live his life somewhere else.

Go kill him, she instructs. And anyone that gets in your way. Then she can die in peace.

So unfolds the rest of the play. A quest that mashes up all the above-mentioned retaliation narratives, but also slyly allows side steps into issues of legal bias, privilege, marital slipperiness and absent fatherhood.

As the twins search out their father, they meet his drug-addicted and suicidal layer Chuck (Brandon Morgan), his desperate-to-flee new wife Angie (Reyna Janelle), their twin half-brothers Riley (Grant Eason) and Scotch (Jackson Swinton), and finally their father (Justin Walker).

Like any good vengeance story – the pursuit is protracted and there aren’t many characters alive at the end of the play, and this is where this production, directed by Candice D’Meza, with fight direction by Avery Vonn Kenyatta, lacks some oomph.

Violence on stage is a tricky thing. Not made easier by the intimate 55-seat, small stage Rec Room space. Add in the fact that the weapon of choice for the twin girls is a rock in a sock. But as each violent scene plays out with the thwack of a soft thoof, thoof, thoof — an obvious sponge as replacement for rock, it becomes harder and harder to revel in the abject violence of the whole exercise.

Yes, we can imagine it. Projections on the scrim show us the faces of those just killed. But we’re here for true bloodthirsty vengeance, Harris’s intention, we want to see these twins unleash a holy well-deserved massacre. Instead, we’re let down by the daintiness of it all.

As problematic are the spaces in between the violence. D’Meza doesn’t seem to know what to do with her searching twins. In one endless scene, they march in circles around and around and around the small stage, delivering lines overshadowed by the clomping of their shoes.

Perhaps it's a send-up for the obviously un-naturalistic nature of the script. A joke we’re supposed to get. But without the nudge/wink, it just feels like lazy direction and distracts from the thrill of the story.

More successfully, graphic text is projected throughout the play, organizing and highlighting the dark humor of the script. Time stamps, place names, and emphasis of words show up in bold white letters, adding much-needed style to the show.

The good news is, surprises still bubble to the surface despite some failings. We might not be treated to an edge-of-your-seat ending, but Harris' script thankfully punches above the production’s weight class, sending us home with some feeling of personal justice accomplished.

Is God Is continues through August 6 at Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson. Visit recroomarts.org for tickets. $20-40.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman