‘Is God Is’ at barebones: Yeah, Go Ahead. Laugh!

Family reunions are unpredictable. Anaia (Sarai Quinice, L), bearing the scars of a past meeting, pays an unwanted visit to her most-wanted dad (Javon Johnson) in 'Is God Is.'

Family reunions can be unpredictable. Anaia (Sarai Quinice, L), bearing the scars of a past meeting, pays an unwanted visit to her most-wanted dad (Javon Johnson) in ‘Is God Is.’

Plays that are serious but also funny (or vice versa) come in multiple kinds, which work in various ways. There’s tragicomedy, which reels you in with wacky hijinks but hits you with a grim outcome. Seriocomedy packs the chuckles into a story meant to warm your heart’s cockles. A more extreme kind, black comedy, gets you laughing at things you normally wouldn’t, such as killings and other ugly deeds performed in a bizarre key. Movies like Pulp Fiction and In Bruges have set the bar high for this genre. 

Then we have Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is. On stage at barebones productions through March 12, Is God Is is a Black black comedy. Two young African American women, twin sisters, set out on a mission to find and kill their dastardly dad. He’s the man who horrifically lit their mother on fire years ago, when the girls were toddlers, leaving them also burn-scarred from when they tried to extinguish mama. He’s the same man who then fled the scene, beat the rap, and is now living the high life with a new wife and family, somewhere in California. Vengeance calls!

One problem: Unlike Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill character, the sisters are not skilled assassins wielding deadly ninja swords, nor do they carry guns. They bumble into the project. Their only weapon is a little billy club made by stuffing a rock in a sock. However, their crude approach does give them the advantage of surprise. Recall that when David showed up with only a slingshot, Goliath sneered, perhaps neglecting proper defensive measures. Never underestimate the power of having your enemies underestimate you. 

So, what’s so funny about Is God Is? If one were to ask the people in the opening-night audience who howled and cheered throughout the spectacle, one might hear answers along the lines of “You just have to see it to understand.” But reviewers don’t get off that easy. Therefore I will try to explain what doesn’t want to be explained, the essence of the humor in this play. 

A Flipped Script

Bumbling assassins are a cliche. They’ve been the butts of many jokes on stage and screen. One new thing here is that Is God Is flips the formula. The twin sisters are not presented as fools to be amused by. They’re dead earnest, as they should be. The bolder, more aggressive sister, Racine (played by Shannon Williams), insists she’s on a mission from God. The humbler sister, Anaia (Sarai Quinice), feels sick to the stomach at the prospect of violence and tries to advise restraint, but gets pulled in anyway. 

It was a good move by playwright Harris to give us two antiheroines instead of one. Together, they embody the dueling drives within any individual: the urge to smash versus the inclination to say “Can’t we all get along?” And a lot of the play’s humor comes from the earnestness of the twins bumping up against the looniness of other characters. On their way to the villain the girls must deal with, and if needed eliminate, a gallery of fools. Each is a ridiculous figure; none realizes the imminent peril, and the whole setup gives you extra incentive to root for the sisters. Not only are they bent on doing justice to a bad guy, they’re cleansing the world of insufferable clowns and nincompoops. Onward, says the audience!


Lawyer Chuck (Garbie Dukes) is the slippery attorney who, years ago, helped bad dad go free despite knowing he was guilty. When we meet Chuck he’s alone in his office, delivering an eloquent monologue despite being drunk as a professional skunk and loading up on pills to go higher. The scene is hilarious, made goofier by a device that’s used repeatedly in the play: Chuck narrates his own actions in the third person, in real time. “He takes a bottle of pills from his pocket and attempts to unscrew the cap,” Chuck announces, doing precisely that. “Child lock. Fuck. He tries again, pressing down … He pours the entire contents of the bottle onto the desk … A pill parade!” And then, “He talks to the pills. ‘I’m gonna follow you straight home! I’m gonna follow you—ooh, take me there …’”

When the sisters arrive, they realize it will be tough to get information about their dad by threatening Chuck with the rock in the sock. As Chuck informs them, he’s already taken enough pills to kill himself. (“Glory is coming! You’re too late!”) But finally, after lots of hassling and rassling, the girls extract the info they need.

Sisters Racine and Anaia stake out the house where dad lives. Although the criminal isn’t around, he clearly has obtained an upper-middle-class home in a fine neighborhood. Out front, the girls espy his gorgeous wife Angie (Kelsey Robinson), a Black Karen who’s unloading groceries while moaning about the first-world problems she encountered at the supermarket. “She had to make sure, make sure, make sure she had the right brand of bacon,” Angie narrates, third-personally. And then at the checkout counter came the crowning indignity: “The coupon for peanut butter. Expired. Expired?? Expired.’”

Angie and bad dad’s union has been blessed with offspring. At home are twin teenage boys: Riley (Kivon Reeves), who’s slow to help carry in the supermarket bags because he’s been watering the succulents, and super-loony Scotch (Todd Griffin), who doesn’t help because he’s busy writing bad poetry. “Barbecue as a metaphor for love,” Scotch exults. “So dope!”

Eventually, bad dad will appear. He is played formidably by Javon Johnson, who also directs. The question that the sisters must confront before the ultimate showdown is what to do about dad’s bourgeois wife and brood.

The twins' mother (Kim El) exudes a warrior mentality. Anaia and Racine (Shannon Williams) are bound to obey her mandate.

The twins’ mother (Kim El) exudes a warrior mentality. Anaia and Racine (Shannon Williams) are bound to obey her mandate.

Earlier in the play they were given instructions. In a surreal bedside scene, the girls visit their mother, still suffering gravely from the burns inflicted ‘way back when. After recalling the agony of that day, mom—played by Kim El—suddenly issues a command in the tone that all moms know how to summon: “Make your daddy dead. Dead.” This draws a few snorts of shocked laughter from the audience. Then, almost as casually as somebody ordering a side of fries, she adds a postscript that absolutely brings down the house: “And everything around him you can destroy, too.”

Bottom Line

Serious themes are explored in Is God Is. You don’t need a PhD to notice them and I will not spoil your intellectual engagement by spelling them out. What’s remarkable is how the play weaves its rollicking way through these themes. If you like Tarantino but might be ready for a twist on Tarantino, see what a good playwright and brilliant actors can do with Black-black-comic material. It’s live and in your face, within the intimate confines of a black box theater.

Closing Credits and Ticket Info

Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is has won national new-play awards. Directed for barebones productions by Javon Johnson, it runs through March 12 at the barebones black box, 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock. Visit barebones on the web for tickets and further details.

The play’s technical director is Douglas McDermott, with lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski, costumes and props by Rikkilee Rose, and music and sound design by Byron Nash, with Andrew Michael as sound engineer. Special effects are by Steve Tolan of Tolan FX. Randy Kovitz is fight director and the stage manager is Claire Durr.

Photos courtesy of barebones productions. 

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance, writes about theater and visual arts for Entertainment Central. 

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