Young writers love to experiment with violence, and why shouldn’t they? Violent impulses live in all of us — getting more and more vocal expression in these roiling times — and stories steeped in violence have always made up a significant part of public entertainment. The challenge, as with anything else one does in art, is to give the violence some greater aesthetic purpose — to invent some meaning, some reason, some context for displaying it.
The Jacobean tragedians who followed in Shakespeare’s path, rather like the Tarantinos of our own day, sometimes seemed to think it was enough to invent clever new ways of perpetrating the violence, or to indulge in grander excesses of it. Mid-20th-century scholars found value in some of their plays because the violence was encased in poetry of a creepy, elegiac beauty. They became, for a while, a standard part of the serious-theater repertoire. That fashion has waned — to my relief, since I always found it hard to view most of these works as anything but the stage equivalent of splatter movies in blank verse. Ford, Webster, Marston, and Middleton now rarely crop up on resident theaters’ season brochures, while literary researchers have removed Cyril Tourneur’s one slender claim to fame, which was that he wrote a play in which a character, learning of his father’s murder, exclaims “Old dad dead!” Today’s scholars credit Middleton, and not poor Tourneur, with this allegedly brilliant wisecrack.
A dad similarly unmourned gets his in Is God Is, by the young playwright Aleshea Harris, currently holding the stage at the newly renovated Soho Rep. Though writing in a profanity-laden free verse rather than iambic pentameter, Harris has affinities to young writers in earlier eras, like the Jacobeans, who’ve claimed tragic stature for a violent story of revenge that ends in a pile of corpses. Like them, she is not wholly unjustified in doing so, since she has mixed into her lurid story reflections on good and evil, on why and how people kill, that give her drama, if not the deep moral dimension of a Hamlet, at least recurring glimpses of a moral context against which acts of violence need to be weighed. And while her story sometimes reduces itself to a supermarket-tabloid bluntness, her way of telling it — postmodern, formalized, distanced — keeps it from ever seeming a piece of facile sensationalism. Clearly, a youthful writer of intelligence is sorting through things that excite her, trying to discover what meanings they bear. That’s a good portent, implying that things left unsorted or unrealized here may find their footing in Harris plays to come.
Her story deals with twins, Racine (Dame-Jasmine Hughes) and Anaia (Alfie Fuller), both bearing severe burn scars from a fire in their early childhood. Raised in foster homes, they think their mother died in the fire that scarred them, until a letter from her informs them otherwise: She (Jessica Frances Dukes) is dying, in a rest home in the “Dirty South,” and wants to see them. From her they learn who set the fateful fire and how She wants them to avenge it. She — designated only by the capitalized pronoun — becomes for them the God whose existence the title queries. (“She made us, didn’t she?” Racine asserts.)
Racine, whose face has escaped scarring, and the more reluctant, doubting Anaia, set off on their mission, destroying in the course of the action not only the arsonist — who happens to be their father (Teagle F. Bougere) — but also the slick but self-hating lawyer (Michael Genet) who got their father off; the woman (Nehassaiu deGannes) who became their father’s second wife; and the male twins (Caleb Eberhardt and Anthony Cason) produced by this second marriage. The stylized carnage, produced chiefly by Racine’s ferocity, is all ironized by its context: The lawyer is in the process of committing suicide; the second wife on the verge of fleeing the unhappy marriage. To gain access to the sons, the girls pose as twin strippers, a maneuver that Webster or Middleton might have admired. In a final irony, the father, when at last confronted, comes up with a sly alternative explanation for his crime, but even Anaia’s moral qualms don’t prevent vengeance from triumphing.
Taibi Magar’s skillful direction creates an outré kind of dynamic tension by keeping the actors restrained, both emotionally and physically, as Adam Rigg’s set goes through violent architectural changes. In this, Magar follows the script’s own disconcerting shifts; it has characters speaking their descriptions and stage directions as well as their dialogue. The strong cast Magar has assembled handles these steps in and out of reality with aplomb. Fuller, a bundle of contorted energy, is particularly impressive, while Genet makes comic hay with his portrait of the smoothie lawyer, maintaining an oleaginous deniability even while popping a fatal dose of pills. Whether one can feel purged, transfigured, or even informed by a play like Is God Is remains an open question. For me, the aspect of it that offers most hope is Harris’s willingness to have her characters question the very acts that are the entire substance of her script. In her head, something more than sensationalism is going on. And down that path lies hope.