Review: A Red Orchid Theatre Reveals the Dirty South and the Western Great Migration With Is God Is
If you ask anyone from my family how they define “the Dirty South,” you will get two answers. The older generation—myself included—will say anywhere south of Mason Dixon. The younger generation from X to Z Gen may say that it is a reclaiming of the South from a place of pride. It’s an attitude and a genre of rap or hip-hop. Playwright Aleshea Harris has written a drama of eerie magical realism with Is God Is at A Red Orchid Theatre (AROT).
This production is directed by Marti Gobel with the touch of a curator. The story starts in the Dirty South and burns a trail to California where the Black Migration also moved on a smaller scale but with equal importance culturally. Dirty reflects a negative stereotype of Black people but also their experience of things done to them and their reactions. Is God Is takes the power of what was used against a people and making it a self-wielded weapon. Yes, all of that is in this story of horrific violence and blood oaths.
The play opens with the cast in a choreographed dance to the neo-soul music from composer Kemet Gobel. I felt that I was witnessing a primordial emergence of the characters as if they were spectral beings from a fever dream. Twins Racine (Aja Singletary) and Anaia (Ashli Rene Funches) have a competitive and loyal relationship. Both girls have horrific burns on their bodies from a disturbing crime from nearly two decades prior. Racine claims to be still cute as she bears the scars on her body and acts as the alpha twin. Anaia has a disfigured face and is teased by Racine for being emotional.
Ashli Rene Funches and Aja Singletary. Photo by Mike Hari and Fadeout Media.
Singletary and Funches inhabit each other’s skin metaphorically as victims of the same crime. The ice cube ritual they share speaks to this and the pain that is always present. Singletary embodies atavism and rage on behalf of her sister and mother. Funches returns that symbiotic rage with a survivor’s guarded optimism.
Karen Aldridge gives a serpentine and terrifying performance as the twin’s mother She/God. Aldridge was previously seen as the overbearing sister in The Moors. As She, Aldridge coils and uncoils revealing her disfigured body. I cannot think of many actors in Chicago who can demand souvenirs from a revenge quest and make it as funny as it is sinister.
Is God Is reveals a lesser-known migration of Blacks from the South to the West in search of homesteads and a less onerous existence. California was a beacon for my Louisiana family landing in Berkeley, Oakland, and Los Angeles. California was a place to start over with plentiful jobs, and proximity to education. This was also the birthing ground of the Black Panthers and a new Black intellectualism. The perception was that a Black family would have a better chance than the more industrial jobs in the northern migration. It is where She/God’s ex and the twins’ father—Man (Kevin Minor) heads to California to start over.
Ashli Rene Funches, Sherman Edwards, and Aja Singletary. Photo By Mark Hari and Fadeout Media.
Man is assisted on his journey with the help of a skeevy lawyer named Chuck Hall (Sherman Edwards). Minor embodies mystery with his character mostly shrouded in the shadows wearing a cowboy hat and a poncho. Edwards brings a darkly comic edge to his portrayal of success. His monologue about how expensive his clothes are is inspired, as well as the commentary on authentic Bermuda shorts. He is what my mother would refer to as a ‘jack-legged’ lawyer. The same applied to frisky preachers and politicians who are always trying to be number one, aka getting over.
Hall makes a lot of money and is successful with the West Coast’s perks of money, sex, and drugs–at a price. He is chugging tequila and popping red pills when he is accosted by the twins in search of their father. Chuck Hall is having a mental break, and it is inferred that his work as an attorney has left some guilty feelings. Racine and Anaia’s appearance at his office pushes him over the edge. They extract Man’s whereabouts from Chuck and claim their first trophy for She/God. The encounter leads them to Man’s other family in a lovely yellow house with teal shutters
Riley (Gardy Gilbert) and Scotch (Andrew Muwonge) are healthy and handsome boys who are also fraternal twins They are an ironically distorted image of their unknown half-sisters because of their physical perfection. Muwonge shines as the clueless dolt who considers himself a poet with “sick rhymes.” He gives a hilarious recitation of his latest poem that is repugnant to Riley, the clean-eating arugula gourmand.
Their mother Angie is desperate to escape Man and her sons. Rita Wicks gives a poignant performance as the trophy wife who has tolerated emotional abuse and has been planning her exit game for years. Angie is the only innocent bystander who cannot bring herself to even say goodbye to her sons and the beautiful home on a hill.
Playwright Aleshea Harris gives her locations as much weight as her characters. The two are symbiotic and entwined like fraternal twins. She animates a Black American experience with Mississippi and California as equally corrupt with different facades. The dialogue sings with lines like “children laughing as if they had the sun in their throats.” She/God deflects her gruesome appearance with that memory of her twins as toddlers.
Harris writes her locations and characters in a way that reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston as she animates the soil and environment as much as the characters. Hurston would give her characters a life informed by the fecund earth and the woods inhabited by souls. Harris’ characters are informed by where they live but it is the more sinister elements of fire, smothering humidity, and the life force of blood.
The scenic design by Sydney Lynne is beautifully spare supporting the changes in scenes. The smoky and atmospheric lighting design is by Levi Wilkins. The lighting is also a character in the story. Greens and purples flow through the scenes most effectively since the play evolves from a place of darkness. Another shout-out to Kemet Gobel for the music. It feels more like a cinematic soundtrack with heavy beats and lilting melodies that turn discordant with the action.
Harris’s writing and Gobel’s precise direction show the baseness of human behavior and how we are driven by our desires. There is not enough love, wealth, or revenge to satisfy the abyss of the shadow self. Anyone is capable of anything with the pressure of circumstances and motivation. It is an intoxicating and horrifying story that shows the darkest side of being human, and sometimes achieving redemption is as dirty a fight as revenge.
Is God Is has been extended through June 4 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Shows are Thursday through Saturday with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and details visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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