By my count, more than 50 Philadelphia theater productions never made it to the stage due to COVID-19. Some have been shuffled optimistically to future seasons, while others won’t ever see the light of day, lost to a pandemic that interrupted an artistic calendar at its apex. Other artists and companies continue to adapt and produce content in real time, taking advantage of the few safe means at their disposal.
The Wilma Theater falls into that latter category. After debuting the terrific play-on-film Code Blue last month, the company returns with a streaming audio production of Is God Is, created in partnership with The 2X2L Programme and Die-Cast. Aleshea Harris’s inventive spin on revenge drama, originally scheduled for a full staging in May, comes into our earbuds with its planned cast of Philly stage regulars intact. (As with Code Blue, the project was recorded and edited under strict social-distance guidelines, with artists working from their own homes.)
A smart decision
The decision to pivot to radio drama was a smart one—especially as some spectators grow tired of repetitious Zoom theater. (Count yours truly among that lot.) Companies nationwide are trying it out, with the Public Theater converting a planned Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard II into a compelling, if somewhat variably acted, listening event that aired on WNYC over four successive nights. It’s a canny choice at a time when people are increasingly attached to podcasts.
The assembled forces vibrantly translate a script that cries out for a visual component to an aural medium. This is not to downplay Harris’s gifts as a writer—her dialogue is both deliciously dense and slyly humorous, with a grandiosity that suits revenge tragedy and Afrofuturism, her other stated influence. But she peppers her spoken prose with design cues and physical character descriptions that here can be only imagined. Although it’s nice to picture a future production one day fulfilling the author’s precise concept, it’s a testament to Ijames’ sharp stewardship and the strong performances of his cast that little feels lost.
Beyond revenge tragedy
Revenge tragedies often revolve around the hubris of humankind in the face of God, but Harris revises this concept even further—she imagines the immortal deity, here called She (Melanye Finister in a chillingly understated performance), as a Black woman dying by inches in a Deep South convalescent home. Two decades earlier, She’s husband, Man (Lindsay Smiling), set a fire that left her and her twin daughters Racine and Anaia (Danielle Leneé and Brett Ashley Robinson) physically and spiritually scarred.
Like many works in the genre, unfinished business sets the plot of Is God Is in motion. “There’s something I need y’all to do,” She implores her daughters from her deathbed. “I’m gonna keep this real simple. Make your daddy dead. Dead dead. And everything around him, you can destroy too.” So begins an odyssey that swings audaciously from comedy to pitch-black drama, outrageousness to sincerity, with echoes of artists as disparate as Octavia E. Butler, Sam Shepard, and Charles Burnett distilled through Harris’s individual voice.
The crisp sound design, by Chris Sannino and Daniel Ison, and Ison's occasionally jarring interstitial music, grip the listener as the story moves West. There, the sisters encounter Chuck Hall (Akeem Davis), a slippery lawyer who possesses information vital for their purposes. (Davis, who often specializes in exquisitely detailed character studies, relishes the opportunity to play big and broad.) The encounter leads them to their ultimate destination, where they find Man living with a TV-perfect second family, a pair of boy twins mirroring Racine and Anaia.
As Angela, Man’s second wife, Taysha Marie Canales slyly subverts stereotypes of idealized suburban motherhood, contrasting Finister’s more outwardly acidic maternal figure. They are both mistreated by Man, but with decidedly different outcomes. Harris could make more of this distinction, and though Anthony Martinez Briggs and Aaron Bell are amusing as Scotch and Riley, the second-family scions, their roles are thinly written.
That can’t be said for Racine and Anaia, who only gain in complexity with each subsequent scene, especially in the hands of Leneé and Robinson. Each actor individuates her character beautifully; Leneé conveys Racine’s natural insouciance with ease, while Robinson wrenchingly communicates Anaia’s self-consciousness. Most importantly, they forge a genuine sisterly bond, borne of being the only constants in each other’s lives.
Top of the list
Is God Is entertains throughout, but Harris also interrogates weighty issues of domestic violence, foster-care abuse, and the mental scars of abandonment with unflinching conviction. Like the best writers, she marries these issues to the structure she’s adopted, and the results produce a swirl of conflicting emotions in the listener. Although the communal power of theater cannot be overstated—especially in its absence—there are ways in which the private experience offered by the Wilma here feels exactly right.
Whether or not Is God Is actually deals with God is up to individual interpretation. For She’s daughters, there is no question: “She made us, didn’t she?” Harris has made a play that should be at the top of every producer’s list for years to come, once the performance industry revives itself.
‘Is God Is’ addresses issues of violence and abuse that some listeners might find disturbing or triggering.
What, When, Where
Is God Is. By Aleshea Harris. Directed by James Ijames. The Wilma Theater, in association with The 2X2L Programme and Die-Cast. Streaming through July 26, 2020, at wilmatheater.org.