Saturday, September 23, 2023

Is God Is


Is God Is by Aleshea Harris. Co-produced by Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, Sydney, September 15 – October 21 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 22

Performed by

Henrietta Enyonam Amevor as Anaia; Masego Pitso as Racine – twin daughters of
She – Cessalee Stovall and Man – Kevin Copeland.
Grant Young as Riley; Darius Williams as Scotch – twin sons of
Angie – Clare Chihambakwe and Man
Patrick Williams as Chuck Hall – Man’s lawyer

Co-Directors – Zindzi Okenyo and Shari Sebbens
Designer – Renée Mulder
Lighting Designer – Jenny Hector; Composer & Sound Designer – Joe Paradise Lui
Assistant Director – Kuda Mapeza; Fight Director – Lyndall Grant
Intimacy Coordinator – Amy Cater; Voice Coach – Lisa Dallinger
Accent Coaches – Amani Dorn and Rachel Finlay
Community Engagement Consultant – Effie Nkrumah
Community Engagement Associate – Gillean Opoku
Photographer – Pia Johnson

Is God Is – a mysterious title with no punctuation to suggest its meaning.  Is God? Is! is perhaps what Anaia believes until the last scene, alone on stage after taking final revenge on her father.  Then it reads Is God? Is?.

But this play is anything but a word game.  It is a playing out in violent action the ethics and tragedy of family coercive control, violence and revenge.  As these were given epic proportions in Ancient Greek theatre, so Aleshea Harris has done such a service for our theatre in modern times.  

Eugene O’Neill, in Mourning Becomes Electra nearly 100 years ago (1933), achieved a great family tragedy with a political emphasis critical of the American Civil War.  In 2018 another American, Aleshea Harris has conjoined two social tragedies – the continuing inequity of life for African Americans which the Civil War never resolved, and the overwhelmingly male family violence across our whole society.  The Australian numbers of women killed each week are damning.  

Is God Is is a universal tragedy.  Harris’ Anaia stands alone in despair with O’Neill’s Lavinia.  When will it ever end?

The style of presentation of Is God Is, infused with Black American cultural expression and mannerisms in language and physical movement, all integrated in today’s upbeat genres in sound, is quite extraordinary, more than complemented in the set design and lighting.  Originality is hardly a strong enough word to use for this production.  Forget the idea of staid conventional mainstage theatre.  This production is made for post Gen-Z.

Co-directing Is God Is, Zindzi Okenyo and Shari Sebbens represent in their own African and Australian First Nations family histories, and being women, both the issue of racial inequality, as well sexual inequality.  As Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director, Kip Williams, points out, “We couldn’t be more fortunate to have the extraordinary directing gifts of Zindzi Okenyo and STC Resident Director Shari Sebbens helming this remarkable production….Shari and Zindzi are in many ways just like the twins at the centre of this piece, whip smart, funny, courageous, and on a mission to change the world.”

Seeing the play, you know this is not sycophantic guff for publicity.  The evidence is in the impact on stage with the audience at curtain call in a state combining awe, pride and respect for such an achievement, by the whole team of actors, creatives and directors.  This is arguably the most exciting work I have seen from the Sydney / Melbourne Theatre Companies, in a cooperative venture of great promise.

Is God Is – theatre you cannot afford to miss.

Henrietta Enyonam Amevor, Cessalee Stovall, Masego Pitso
as twins Anaia and Racine visiting She, their mother who they had been told was dead,

Racine and Anaia, showing burns from the fire lit by Man
which supposedly killed their mother, She.

Grant Young, Clare Chihambakwe, Darius Williams
as twins Riley and Scotch with their mother Angie, Man's next wife,