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Vanessa Sears and Oyin Oladejo in Is God Is.Elijah Nichols/Handout

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  • Title: Is God Is
  • Written by: Aleshea Harris
  • Director: Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
  • Actors: Oyin Oladejo, Vanessa Sears
  • Company: An Obsidian Theatre, Canadian Stage and Necessary Angel co-production
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To May 22, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks and proof of vaccination required.

Critic’s Pick

God is about to die – and she wants her two Black daughters to go Old Testament on her enemies before she does.

Is God Is, currently on at Canadian Stage in a co-production with Obsidian and Necessary Angel, is a violent and darkly comic American play with a jugular-grabbing premise that borrows from Western films and ancient Greek tragedy in equal measure.

Twins Racine (a scorching Oyin Oladejo) and Anaia (Vanessa Sears) have been raised in foster care under the belief that their mother died in the fire that left them with burns as babies – the former on her back, the latter on her face.

In fact, the sisters’ mother is alive – and playwright Aleshea Harris’s tale begins almost mythologically, by having the two learn of this by letter while sitting on a smouldering couch and applying cold compresses to their scars. (The burns are depicted in a creatively abstract, rather than gruesome, way in designer Ming Wong’s punky costumes.)

God, which is what the sisters call their mother because she gave them life, has a final request for her children when they travel to meet her in a care home in the “dirty South”: “Make your daddy dead.” (Fittingly and with force, God is played by Obsidian founding artistic director Alison Sealy-Smith.)

Racine and Anaia take up God’s mission to track down the father responsible for burning them all, and depart on a journey that takes them through genre as much as space. The office of a day-drinking Los Angeles lawyer (Matthew G. Brown) feels as if it’s out of a film noir, while the suburban house on a hill they end up at next seems like the set of a corny 1990s Black sitcom (maybe Sister, Sister?).

Set designer Ken MacKenzie and lighting designer Raha Javanfar use moveable rectangular walls and straight tubes of light to create different frames around the action. It adds to the feeling that we’re flipping through TV channels late at night in director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu’s production, which is curiously laid-back at first but eventually no-holds-barred.

Despite its shifts in style, Is God Is has the predictable and satisfying overall structure of an action movie or video game, with the sisters building up toward fighting the big boss. The questions are who will die along the way, who might be spared – and how much Harris plans to subvert the form at any given moment.

While the play has been compared with the ultraviolent movies of Quentin Tarantino, it made me think more of the works of the playwrights who were first compared with Tarantino in the 1990s. These were the mostly British, mostly male and white writers of the so-called in-yer-face movement that included Martin McDonagh, Mark Ravenhill, Canada’s Brad Fraser and, affiliated but in a class of her own, Sarah Kane.

Those playwrights (with the exception of the late Kane) are still writing, but their plays have fallen a little out of the critical current as old questions about the societal effects of depicting violent words and actions in art and entertainment are aired in a new way amid concerns about “trauma porn” and triggering.

So, it’s certainly interesting to see a Black female playwright playing in a related style on stage in Toronto this week, and so soon after Chinese-Canadian female playwright Chloé Hung’s Three Women of Swatow – with its bathtub full of blood – at Tarragon Theatre. Violence is, indeed, a cycle, and it seems to be cycling upward again in theatre with a fresh, new generation of talent doling it out.

“Ever want to scrape off your scars and see what’s underneath?” Racine asks at one point in Is God Is.

Oladejo, long a notable presence in Toronto theatre, gets a deserved lead role as Racine here, and really digs beneath the character’s surface. She channels sorrow and rage – and burns with both throughout – while still nailing all the one-liners and swinging her rock-in-a-sock weapon with style.

Sears does a fine job as well as the softer of the twins. In the supporting all-Black cast, the most searing performances come at the top and the tail of the show. I’m not saying too much about the rest of the actors only because I think it’s better to simply encounter their characters as a surprise. Yes, American accents are a bit all over the place, but so is the show – and sometimes it’s nice to be knocked around by some raw writing.

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