In the 1940s, films took a sudden interest in female twins. Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, both Warner Brothers contract players (when they weren’t fighting their contracts), appeared in A Stolen Life and The Dark Mirror, respectively, playing one good twin and one bad. (Davis later twinned again in Dead Ringer.) Then there was Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, playing one good and one loud.
In Is God Is, which reopens Off-Broadway’s Soho Rep at its old Walker Street address, playwright Aleshea Harris revives the notion and doubles down on it. Not content with one set of twins, she presents two — sisters and brothers, seemingly fraternal. Hewing to 1940s tradition, there’s one good and one bad in both sets.
Of the sisters, Anaia (Alfie Fuller) is the good one of that pair, and Racine (Dame Jasmine Hughes) has a mean streak enough for both of them. Nevertheless, they’re devoted sisters who’ve taken care of each other since childhood. Their father abandoned the family after setting fire to their mother, a horrific event that left Anaia facially scarred. Their mother, also scarred, flew their destroyed coop.
The sisters receive a letter from their long-gone mother, inviting them for a reunion. Anaia is reluctant to accept, but Racine isn’t, and she’s the more persuasive of the two. So off they go to encounter their dying mother, who they think of as God. She’s She (Jessica Frances Dukes). On her deathbed, She has bucket-list wish for her daughters: locate their father and do him in.
Anaia and Racine somehow know where he is, and they set off. In quick time, they arrive at his home. (Adam Rigg’s modest set is conveniently adaptable.) They don’t immediately encounter their gasoline-and-matches dad, but they do meet their half-brothers, twins Scotch (Caleb Eberhardt), the good one, and Riley (Anthony Cason), the unmistakably bad one.
Riley convinces Scotch that Racine and Anaia are strippers their father hired as an early birthday present. Scotch goes along reluctantly, which turns out to be unwise because Racine, feeling no kinship, has murder on her mind.
Thus begins a round of events summon spoilers, such as a sizable stone in a sock. Or that She’s wish doesn’t go unfulfilled, to one extent or another. Or that Racine and Anaia don’t meet their long-absent father, called Man (Teagle F. Bougere).
Now is a good time to mention that high on an upstage wall, designer Rigg has mounted a small-screen TV that frequently announces a new narrative sequence: “The Letter,” “Going West,” “All Fall Down,” etc. When Racine and Anaia get underway, flames fill that screen. It’s a tip-off that with “God” in the title of the 90-minute Is God Is, the audience will now watch characters go to hell.
Indeed, playwright Harris is bound and determined to offer Is God Is as an allegory. She also has it in mind to wrangle with another classic American theme: the Wild West. When Man arrives — head bent down, wearing a cowboy hat low on his brow, looking as if he’s ambling down the streets of Laredo or heading toward the OK Corral — he’s embodies a mythic figure, one we also know that from the flicks.
But we also begin to suspect that Harris is overloading her thematic elements. So many balls in the air — one might fall to the ground. Or it might not. Her purpose is clear: she wants to tell a figurative tale, lit by the nipping flames of retribution and redemption, and to push boundaries as far as she can. She needn’t push quite so far.
It might by explained by a recurring theme in the work of African American playwrights — most recognizably in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle: the showing of destruction within a community rather than outside it. You see it in Is God Is — head bashing, knives wielded, and worse.
As the walls of Rigg’s set divide and crash, as Jeremy Toussaint Baptiste never skimps on booming sound effects, as Taibi Magar’s direction grows more and more intrepid, the cast of Is God Is is uniformly good. Fuller has the toughest challenge. Like Hughes, she rarely leaves the stage; her character’s facial scars are blatant. All the actors toss themselves unabashedly into the fight scenes, and are kept safe by fight director J. David Brimmer.
Harris’ title could be a spin on Louis Jordan’s much beloved “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby).” Let’s just say there is more here than ain’t.