If you’re a Mixed Blood patron who thought the theater sometimes didn’t deliver on the promise of blood in its name, then “Is God Is” is the play for you.
There will be blood in Aleshea Harris’ ferocious and violent tragicomedy about two sisters “on a mission from God,” which is how they refer to their mother (Joy Dolo) because she created them. Early in the play, Ma summons them to the hospital bed where she’s been languishing for years, the victim of a fire that her husband started, also scarring daughters Racine (Dame-Jasmine Hughes) and Anaia (Chaz Hodges) before he disappeared.
Her instructions: “Make him dead. Real dead. And bring me back some treasures from it.”
Practically all of the humor in “Is God Is” — and there’s lots of it — comes from the matter-of-fact way Racine and Anaia accept horrifying things. The sisters are very different — ’Cine is impulsive and full of rage, ’Naia is more innocent — but they have a Leopold-and-Loeb vibe, so they accomplish things together they might not be willing to do by themselves. Which is why they immediately tear off on a picaresque journey, meeting new people — or, rather, new victims — along the way. Theirs is not the real world, not exactly. It’s more like a lurid, B-movie version of it, as suggested by Christopher Heilman’s deceptively simple set, where some action is played behind a cutout in the back wall that makes it look as if we’re watching a movie.
Under Nataki Garrett’s direction, the whole cast is terrific but “Is God Is” belongs to its female actors. Dolo’s hoarse performance slyly nods to the grizzled character actors who gave Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood their marching orders in the spaghetti westerns that “Is God Is” frequently recalls (Eric Mayson’s music is spot on). Hodges gets the biggest laugh of the evening simply by saying “Ummmm?” And Hughes has felt like a gift to Twin Cities theater since her first appearance three years ago in “Pussy Valley” at Mixed Blood.
It is great to have Hughes back after a sojourn to New York, where she won an Obie Award last spring for “Is God Is.” She often plays characters who have been through the wringer: sex workers, slaves, drug dealers. But there is a buoyancy and a raw intelligence in her acting that marks her characters as survivors. We don’t know exactly what Racine has been through as she and her sister bounced from foster home to foster home, but she takes to revenge so gleefully that it’s evident that the fire that scarred her was the only the beginning of her troubles.
That gets to the heart of Harris’ play, which asks, “What if violence is contagious?” What if the people who commit violent acts are led to them because the world has taught them to be violent and it is the only thing they know?