Think — a Western, an epic, a Tarantino flick turned mythical, an Old Testament-type revenge tale.
But starring black people.
“Is God Is,” which kicks off Washington Ensemble Theatre’s 2019-20 season on Sept. 6, is a play that leans into stereotypes in a way that transcends them, said Aleshea Harris, the playwright. It places respectability politics in a far, far corner.
The play is hard to describe — but it goes something like this:
“It’s a myth born upon an allegory born on the bed of Tarantino movies,” said the play’s director, Lava Alapai. “For me, it’s really about a hero’s journey in a way we haven’t really seen or allowed people to see black women being. In the simplest sense, it’s sisters who get called to revenge God and do God’s bidding.”
The play follows two 21-year-old twin sisters, Racine and Anaia, in their journey to exact revenge on their father by orders of their dying mother (who is also God. Yes, God is a woman.) The sisters are covered in burns — for Anaia, they cover her whole face — from a fire they believe was set by their father. In many ways, it resembles a classic adventure/revenge story: The two characters learn about themselves as they navigate their mission.
“Is God Is” has had positive reviews, with New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley praising the play’s “high-octane carnage.”
It also won the 2016 Relentless Award from the American Playwriting Foundation, four Obie awards and was a finalist for the 2017-18 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which recognizes outstanding works by women playwrights.
But it hasn’t gotten this far by playing it safe. Harris was at first concerned that people would take issue with the depiction of black women committing acts of violence — that can be seen as the perpetuation of the angry-black-women stereotype. Harris believes, however, that her characters transcend stereotypes or the “mythology” of black women.
“We don’t exist in a vacuum. We live in a world with — each body carries a mythology with it. There’s a mythology that follows the white men, there’s a mythology that follows queer people. I’m aware of these mythologies, but if I wrote avoiding them, I couldn’t write anything,” said Harris.
This play also follows a few traditional storytelling forms that informed the ways Harris constructed the story.
“The Western — I grew up watching and never saw myself in. I thought to myself: If you were to write a Western, who would occupy it? The same with Greek mythologies. If you were to write a tragedy, what would it look like?” said Harris.
This play is trying to exist within the medium of white-dominated narratives, narratives that have been powerful displays of self expression for almost as long as storytelling has existed, but replacing — or reclaiming — their face, sound and culture.
Expect a play that is centered around black women, said Harris.
“I had to set aside my fear of what people might think about it and lean into the fact that we get to have our own mythical stories. We don’t have to hide them. My approach to this is trying to celebrate our culture as opposed to having to dampen or apologize for it in anyway,” said Alapai. “[‘Is God Is’] is not afraid of itself.”
“Is God Is” by Aleshea Harris. Sept 6-23; Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $25; washingtonensemble.org