‘Is God Is’ at Constellation laughs in the face of absurdity

Aleshea Harris’ epic tragicomedy is rendered with grit and humor by director KenYatta Rogers and an able ensemble.

“It’s in the blood,” says Racine (Devin Nikki Thomas), speaking to the vengeful flow of violence that compels her and her twin sister Anaia (Morgan Danielle Day) to hunt down their malevolent father. It’s a grave observation that plucks at the mythic chords in Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is, now playing at Constellation Theatre Company under the direction of KenYatta Rogers. As in many great myths, the characters at times seemed trapped in their own personal hell—but at least this hell is hella funny.

The sisters’ patricidal odyssey begins when they are summoned to the hospital by their mother (Jasmine Joy), sometimes known as “God.” She informs them that the fire that irreparably scarred them all years ago was set by the girls’ father, who made a new life for himself after ruining theirs. Racine and Anaia journey from the Deep South to California, first to visit Chuck (James J. Johnson), the lawyer who got their father off, then on to the cookie-cutter suburbs. There they meet their father’s disaffected wife Angie (Michelle Proctor Rogers), a woman fleeing privilege they could only imagine, and their twin half-brothers Riley (Ethan Hart) and Scotch (Corbin Ford), who are as prim and entitled as the sisters are rough and tumble. In the shadows is their father (ELI ELl), who accepts their arrival with grim recognition, if not contrition.

Morgan Danielle Day (Anaia) and Devin Nikki Thomas (Racine) in ‘Is God Is.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Harris has drawn on a wide range of tools to imbue Is God Is with epic credentials. Over its course, the many denizens of this bitterly surreal world set their own scene by describing themselves and their actions in the third person. It’s a clever way to make exposition compelling, but it also speaks to how hard everyone is trying to get a handle on their own narrative. Added to that mix are step sequences, choreographed to hip-hop and Afropunk by Ama Law, that mark the girls’ journey west as well as their core characteristics. Racine’s arms move free as she steps with intensity and purpose, while Amaia tucks hers in, afraid of what might happen if she cuts loose. It’s a graphic, sometimes silly illustration of the twins’ diverging dispositions; it also demonstrates the greater opportunities Day has to highlight shades of regret and anguish in Anaia.

Rogers and the creative team have crafted the world of Is God Is to further accentuate character and facilitate Harris’ storytelling scope. Danielle Preston costumes Anaia and Racine in overalls and fishnets, respectively, marking the former’s stubborn childishness and the latter’s brash sensuality. Framing the action in Shartoya R. Jn.Baptiste’s set is a proscenium with brushstrokes straight out of Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son, which are complemented by John D. Alexander’s color-rich lighting. Translucent walls centerstage act as a shadow screen for much of the play, allowing for the grisliest sequences to transpire in silhouette. It’s in the shadowplay and the fights that unfold in full view that rough edges emerge, first in the inconsistent clarity of shadowcasting and again in Casey Kaleba’s fight sequences, which are executed with compelling shape but are neither tight enough to be brutal nor broad enough to capture the play’s often cartoonish humor.

The play’s heady mix of drama, narrative storytelling, dance, and shadow work is ably executed by the ensemble. The standout supporting player is Joy, who utterly dominates the space from her upright hospital bed with an intensity perfectly measured to be as hilariously overwrought as it is genuinely horrifying. In a punishing monologue, Joy lays out the trauma suffered at the hands of her lover, touching near-biblical heights while setting the darkly comic tone that shapes the play. Nestled in that range are Johnson’s gleefully bananas turn as Chuck, the fussy disillusionment in Roger’s housewife Angie, and the (sometimes overly) obnoxious teen energy in Ford’s Scotch and Hart’s Riley. EL’s father, sporting a literal black hat straight out of an old TV western, is a fittingly aloof counterpoint to his zany friends, lovers, and progeny.

TOP LEFT: Michelle Proctor Rogers (Angie); TOP RIGHT: Ethan Hart (Riley) and Corbin Ford (Scotch); ABOVE LEFT: James J. Johnson (Chuck) and Devin Nikki Thomas (Racine); ABOVE RIGHT: Jasmine Joy (She), in ‘Is God Is.’ Photos by DJ Corey Photography.

It’s a credit to Rogers and company that the humor in the piece comes through sharply, whether in Racine’s crude meditations—“Poison is a punk ass, bitch ass way to kill somebody,” she proclaims—or the juxtaposition of Jn.Baptiste’s literal slice of suburbia with the twins’ otherwise gritty environs. This is crucial, because Harris’ blending of comedy with tragedy does more than leaven proceedings: it teases out the absurdity of generational trauma and the cosmic injustice. How is it that two girls have to play with a bad hand while their father seemingly gets to redraw at will? Constellation’s hilarious and sobering Is God Is makes it easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, but it still leaves you with some exquisite bruises to nurse.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, no intermission.

Is God Is plays through July 14, 2024 (Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm), presented by Constellation Theatre Company, performing at Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are $20–$45 and are available for purchase by calling the box office at (202) 204-7741, going online, or in person before each performance. Constellation offers a variety of discount programs and pay-what-you-will performances. Select performances are ASL interpreted.

The cast and creative credits are online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional except for Saturday matinees where they are required.

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