The playwright Aleshea Harris knows the history. She understands the racism that fuels the self-protective impulse behind respectability politics — the idea that if members of a marginalized group behave impeccably, they won’t be oppressed.
She has a couple of problems with that strategy, though. First, it doesn’t work. Second, as a black artist, she needs to depict the complex humanity of black people, not a tidied-up version.
“I can’t be so concerned with what racist white people will think about my work that I can’t make my work,” she said the other day over a matcha latte in a Hell’s Kitchen café. “Let someone else play the best-behaved black person on the planet. I can’t do that. I’m fully human, I’m fucked-up in many ways, and I want to talk about that.”
So, onstage, she does — and lately it’s working out brilliantly. Harris’s breakthrough play, the poetic, bloody revenge tale Is God Is, put her on the radar just a year and a half ago when it won her the Relentless Award, a prestigious prize established in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman that comes with $45,000. Directed by Taibi Magar (Underground Railroad Game), the play premiered in February to acclaim at Soho Rep, and this week collected a flock of Obie awards: for Harris, Magar, and its lead actors, Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes, whose characters are young, black, Southern by birth, and profoundly unconcerned with the niceties.
Twin sisters named Racine and Anaia, they’re 21 when they get a letter from the mother they were sure had perished in the fire that burned them horribly when they were three. Their father, her husband, intended to kill her; he doused her with liquor and lit the match. Gruesomely scarred, she really is dying now, and she summons her girls to send them on a mission.
“Make your daddy dead dead dead,” she tells them. “And everything around him you can destroy, too.”
Inspired by Harris’s “strong nostalgic fever for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” the play is a western of sorts that she describes as an “epic journey of, you know, taking care of familial business.” Armed with a rock in a sock, the twins set off for California to track their father down.
“I felt like my face melted off as I read it,” Magar said.
Harris began writing Is God Is as an operetta, commissioned by the California Institute of the Arts, where she got her MFA. When she couldn’t figure out an organic way to insert the music, she changed tacks and made it into a drama that feels like a fresh-voiced, West Coast relation of Suzan-Lori Parks. The Red Letter Plays, especially, come to mind.
“It’s really murderous, it’s really dark, but I also had sociopolitical interests. I always do,” said Harris, 36, who in conversation laughs easily and radiates a California sunniness even though she’s a transplant there. She lives on the outskirts of Los Angeles now, but was born in Germany and grew up the middle of three children in a U.S. Army family. Her single mother, an immigrant from Trinidad, spent twenty years in the military, and Harris had a peripatetic childhood, moving from base to base.
Her memories start around age three, in Panama. By the time the Berlin Wall fell, she was back in Germany. The biggest chunk of her childhood was spent in Mississippi, where she went to high school, community college, then the University of Southern Mississippi, studying acting. After graduation, she moved to Florida and started doing spoken-word poetry. The rhythms and musicality of that language continue to shape her work, as does her resistance to constraints.
“I am frustrated by what I think are narrow perceptions about how black people can exist onstage still,” she said, “and cultural pressure for black women to just endure. We are praised and honored for being strong and putting up with whatever the hardship. I’m frustrated by that. I think it’s dehumanizing. I’m not proposing that we go out and murder. But I am proposing new ways of thinking.”
That means making space for catharsis. In Is God Is — and in her new Philoctetes adaptation, commissioned by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which includes a female sniper — release comes from the retributive violence of black female characters who don’t take crimes against themselves and their families lying down.
“I’m interested in a nuanced exploration of black female anger. I think it’s a thing that we should talk about,” Harris said, noting that while she leads a joyful life, she is also angry. “I don’t want anyone to tell me that I don’t get to be that, that I have to put that away and be good.”
Besides which, she said, acts of vengeance can be a lot of fun to write.
Is God Is, on the page, is arresting not just for its content but for its form — “adventures in typography” that Harris says were inspired by Parks’s plays and a graphic version of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. Like stage directions unignorably embedded in the text, the script’s variable font size, spacing of letters in words, and physical placement of those words all communicate information about performance.
“It was one of the more startling things about it that I loved,” said Magar, who first got the script from her agent, who also represents Harris. “Language as art, the way it’s laid out on the page and the way that it’s expressed. It’s just shocking, so beautiful.”
She says she begged Sarah Benson, Soho Rep’s artistic director, to let her direct it.
The success of that production further elevated Harris, who may soon get a shot at a screenplay. “There’s great interest in Is God Is as a film, luckily, so I would be writing that,” she said. “We’ll see where and how that lands.”
The striking thing about her success is how distant from it she seemed before she got the Relentless Award: agentless, broke, teaching as an adjunct at CalArts. She has been telling stories since early childhood (“I took Barbie doll play very seriously,” she says), but if she hadn’t won, she might have scaled back her ambitions, deciding for the sake of her sanity to be “content with readings with friends and self-producing in someone’s living room.”
But with the award came money and attention, and when Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon) saw her photo in the New York Times, he tracked down her plays and read them. Unbeknownst to her, she said, he also gave them to people, including Benson.
And so here Harris was on a Manhattan morning, in town not just for the Obies (her mom was around for those, too), but also for auditions — for an as-yet-unannounced production of one of her earlier plays. Suddenly, her career is flourishing.
“It’s a very strange life,” she said, pleased. Then, done with her latte, she headed out the door.