Everyone loves a good revenge story. Especially when the victim has suffered something so terrible that they seek their own justice. I have seen a few productions in this genre on stage, but I have seen nothing as confronting as Is God Is.
We follow twin sisters as they set out on a mission from ‘god’ to seek revenge. Written by Alesha Harris, Is God Is is a first for the Melbourne Theatre Company with an all-Black cast taking the stage.
Entering Southbank Theatre’s Sumner, we were greeted by a mix of Hip-Hop and RnB tracks by female artists. On the dimly lit stage was a lone wooden structure representing a house. It was framed by a wall of plastic sheeting that spanned the rear of the stage. Before long, the theatre went dark, and a lone figure appeared with an illuminated house on their head. There was smoke bellowing from the tiny windows and the ominous character was cradling two babies in each arm. This caught me off guard and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for it all to start making sense.
Anaia and Racine, portrayed by Henrietta Enyonam Amevor and Masego Pitso respectively, have terrible scars on them. Especially Anaia, with half of her face covered in scar tissue. Racine mentions that their estranged mother has written and wants to see them, and the pair set off to America’s deep south to visit her.
To start, the dialogue had me intrigued and was somewhat humorous. But it isn’t until we meet the mother, simply known as She, portrayed by Cessalee Stovall, that we get a feel for what this show is really about. The monologue is harrowing, a retelling of how the girls got their scars at the hands of their abusive and evil father. But they are not just any scars, they are burns.
Upon learning this, I sat in my seat silently shocked, squirming as I envisioned what happened to She and her two little girls. I was angry and so was the mother. Suffering from her own horrible injuries, She wanted one thing as her dying wish; to make this man pay for what he did. Referring to their mother as ‘God’, the sisters are sent on a mission from ‘God’ to seek revenge.
Throughout the rest of the play, the twins track down their father, simply known as Man, portrayed by Kevin Copeland. Before we reach the penultimate conclusion, the twins leave a trail of destruction in their wake as they run into several other characters. Patrick Williams as Chuck Hall, Man’s lawyer, Clare Chihambakwe as Angie, Man’s wife, and finally, Man’s twin boys, Riley and Scotch portrayed by Grant Young and Darius Williams respectively.
Is God Is is unashamedly dark, confronting and violent. And whilst Harris’ script is absolutely incredible, it is the Australian creative team that brings this body of work to life. Co-Directed by Zindzi Okenyo and Shari Sebbens, you might think that having two directors would come across as disjointed. But the pair bring a wide range of skills that bring out the best in the cast to create a cohesive and dynamic performance.
The set by Renée Mulder is simple yet highly effective and her dual role as costume designer helps bring the stage to life. The use of compression tights covered in an artwork to depict the burn scars was simple yet extremely effective. The lighting design by Jenny Hector is dramatic and the shadow play creates an ominous vibe that had me fearing the character depicted in the shadows.
Every member of the cast is brilliant in their own right. Cessalee Stovall as She is heartbreaking and fearless. And whilst her character barely moves, her vocal performance provides so much raw emotion that she doesn’t require body language to bring She to life. Clare Chihambakwe as Angie is almost the Yin to She’s Yang. She can sense what is coming and rather than face the fight, she wants to run. I could sense the fear in her voice yet admired her meticulous plan for escape.
The book of Is God Is, is a mixture of narrative and dialogue, spoken word poetry, and at times, feels like an old detective tale, almost like a film noir live on stage. I felt this the most when Patrick Williams delivered the monologue of his character Chuck Hall. I mean, even the name Chuck sounds like an old timey detective. The way Williams described his surroundings and narrated his own actions was fantastic.
Grant Young and Darius Williams as twins Riley and Scotch are great in their own ways. Whilst their time on stage might be fleeting, their performances are just as memorable as the main characters. They are both concerning and surprisingly funny.
The clear standouts of this production are Masego Pitso and Henrietta Enyonam Amevor as the driven, vengeful twin sisters. Amevor is somewhat sweet and innocent as Anaia. With her scars being the most prominent out of the two, she appears shy and takes some convincing to carry out the ‘mission from god’. Masego Pitso on the other hand as Racine takes much less convincing and is determined to get the revenge that she believes she is owed. I felt empathy for both characters. I understood the hesitation and their reflection of not being killers, but at the same time, wanted these characters to quench the anger that I felt as the narrative unfolded. Their performances were phenomenal.
I also have to give a shout out to Lyndall Grant as the production’s fight coordinator. The show gets progressively violent as it reaches the dramatic conclusion and Grant has done a fantastic job along with the full cast in making the fight sequences appear realistic. The play just wouldn’t have the same impact without it and these fight sequences both held me on the edge of my seat and often made my jaw drop.
I had no idea what to expect of Is God Is and I can safely say that I was completely blown away. Like a modern Greek tragedy, not only does the play tackle the horrible topic of domestic and family violence, but it also brings to the forefront the anger of the victim, regardless of whether their following actions are justifiable or not. And whilst I don’t condone the actions of the twin sisters, you cannot help but cheer for them.
Is God Is is now playing at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, The Sumner with performances running until the 15th of July 2023. I was lucky enough to attend on a Forum Night that holds a Q&A with the cast after the show. There is one more forum night scheduled for Monday, the 3rd of July. There are also various accessible performances with Audio Described, Tactile Tour, Aslan Interpreted and Open Caption performances.
For more information on Melbourne Theatre Company and ticketing for Is God Is, visit: https://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/whats-on/season-2023/is-god-is/
Photography by Pia Johnson.