A Conversation with ‘Is God Is’ playwright Aleshea Harris

July 15, 2020

When Covid-19 forced theaters to close, the Wilma committed to finding a way to produce the final show of their season, ‘Is God Is’ by Aleshea Harris. I spoke with Aleshea Harris at the beginning of the rehearsal process for the radio play workshop production, amidst the pandemic and widespread protests inspired by the uprising for Black Lives. We spoke about the upcoming production, her body of work, and her experiences as a Black playwright in the American Theatre. What follows has been transcribed from a phone conversation. Please enjoy!
Production Dramaturg, Alexandra Espinoza 

What message did you hope audiences would walk away with after seeing the world premiere of this play (Soho Rep in 2018)? 

I actually relieve myself of trying to create a message for an audience. I think I try to build an experience, a narrative that disrupts cultural mythologies. I’m always thinking about what it means to center Black women and to think about them with complexity, and allow them complexity and nuance, and allow them their rage. That’s probably as close to a message as I would get. 

I am always trying to use narrative to be disruptive, to call out a problematic status quo

‘Is God Is’ playwright Aleshea Harris

Is there anything about this production being a radio play that shifts or updates what you hope for that experience? 

Well, we don’t have the physical bodies in front of us. Bodies carry mythologies and there’s something that happens when one isn’t bearing witness to a person in motion and action, sweating, speaking, etc. I have as many questions as you guys do about what that is going to do, what it means to just take in this piece as a sonic experience. I’ve never had that experience before so I don’t know. I think there might be questions around Black speech that come into play a little differently for this format. I don’t fully know what those questions are, you guys might be entertaining them. 

Sample text and typography from Is God Is

Most of what I want to ask are questions that lead to questions and I think that’s where we all are with this shift. One thing that is always going to be exciting and unique about this play is its typography. I’d love to hear where the typographical choice came from for you. 

So that’s been a progression for a few years. I started out just kind of flirting with how the language was arranged on a page, and I feel like I’ve been given the invitation to do so by Suzan Lori Parks. I was also invited to do this, given permission to do this by Ionesco. There’s a graphic version of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. If you’ve not experienced that, I highly recommend it. It’s one of those art books that is hard to get, and really expensive but you can google it and see the images, and it’s really beautiful. It just captures something traditional typography and playwriting doesn’t. It activates, I think, the bodies, the voice, the mind. It impacts on me as a writer, and I wonder if it also impacts differently upon collaborators. So that’s my journey. If I consider this a tool in terms of conveying meaning, emotion, space, all of the things, if I add typography to my palette, what does it do? What can I do? How can I use it? I also studied visual art before I studied theatre so I think that’s part of it too. [There’s] a strong impulse to make a picture and I am making a picture by sort of indicating what happens with the bodies in some ways. It’s another way to do that with the language on the page. An expression of rage using typography is fun for me, it’s a delight, and it also becomes more visceral in a way. It’s like a code right? That sort of activates the brain differently. 

More sample text from Is God Is

Going back to what you mentioned about creating an experience, obviously this production is happening in a historically unprecedented time, in terms of both the pandemic and the recent uprisings across the country. Are there other elements of an experience that you hope for people to have when they encounter this story today?

It’s interesting. The uprising and the pandemic for me have exacerbated things that have already been painful and unfair. I feel like nothing new has occurred. Maybe [Is God Is] says the same thing that many of us are saying: “Black Lives Matter.” We should be centering Black people. Poor people matter. We should be considering the concerns and the nuances of their experiences. Perhaps it says it in a way that someone who encounters this work hasn’t heard before, and it lands at a greater impact. I’ve been thinking about these matters for years. They are the reason that I write things like Is God Is. I’m reluctant to call this work timely or say that it answers anything. It is saying the thing that’s been said. Many of us have been banging our heads against these walls for years. Here is a vehicle, here is the work that channels a lot of that rage, and that sadness, and a work that has everything to do with misogynoir. It has everything to do with being angry that Breonna Taylor isn’t on people’s minds the way she ought to be. It has everything to do with understanding that the news cycle is going to forget about her and that it took the death of men…even in death, Black women are erased. So, these things have been upsetting me forever as a Black woman. I don’t know if they will land differently for some folks or if their eyes have been opened, or they’ll understand something anew. I can’t say honestly that that’s my intention, though I will be pleased if that’s the case–if it leads to some kind of action, or way of being in the world that makes it safer for Black women, Black people. 

You were commissioned for something called Play At Home (a series of short plays from playwrights commissioned by a group of regional theatres specifically for this moment of unprecedented isolation). I’d love to hear about that experience if you want to share. 

[Artistic Director] Maria Goyanes called me, and I know her from Woolly [Mammoth]  where I took another work of mine [What To Send Up When It Goes Down was produced there in 2019]. At first I was anxious about it because I feel that there’s been a lot of questions for folks in the field [about this moment], and for me it can be anxiety inducing because I feel the need to have an answer. But I really don’t have an answer and am just moving through it as everyone else is, and that’s okay. And that’s sort of what I keep telling myself: “You don’t know, nobody knows. And it’s okay.” Just kind of be[ing] honest about where you are in this moment, and you have your fears and your concerns and maybe your ideas about how you can be helpful, and keep it simple. So I had to sort of let go of those anxieties to create a piece that I hoped would be useful.

More sample text from Is God Is

Can you speak on how the experience helped you reflect on theatre’s role in this socially distanced moment? Or do you think that there’s been an evolution in the role of theatre because of this moment? 

I hope it doesn’t sound like a cop out because I’m being very honest when I say this: I’m always trying to be useful. I’m always going “what’s the most useful thing?” So this pandemic and this uprising haven’t made me think “Well, I ought to make sure my theatre is useful.” It’s just a reminder, you know? That people are looking and that people need things, and that I believe a large part of my job is to offer and create these offerings that are like food, that can nourish the soul, nourish the spirit, disrupt cultural fuckery and just be tools. So my Play at Home experience ended up being a positive one. I created a piece that I think, as I have gotten feedback, that people find useful in this moment. The role of the theatre now….I don’t know? We’re telling stories. Our role is to create. I think my role is to create narratives as someone who understands the ways that mythology works and can be used, manipulated, to make a death like Breonna Taylor’s or George Floyd’s possible in our country. I am always trying to use narrative to be disruptive, to call out a problematic status quo, and so I think that that’s what I’m continuing to do. I think we’re having to reimagine, as the Wilma is (which is tremendous because, with the questions around the sonic experience, we get to look at things a little more closely). Also, with Play At Home, if we hadn’t been isolating I wouldn’t have written that particular play, right? I wouldn’t have been thinking about what people can and cannot access during a pandemic, so there is something exciting about getting to essentialize, because certain things aren’t accessible to us. What does that do to the work? How does that elevate it? How do we get to think differently? And then how do we move past this moment? Can we take some of those things that we’ve learned with us into our practice? 

I think a lot of people will find that encouraging. 

There’s something about feeling like the ground has been leveled–and I don’t mean to suggest that we are on equal ground because there is inequity in our field and our country–everyone’s having different levels of privilege and disadvantage but there is something that I’ve found that’s heartening about thinking about what to build. What’s next? What’s the utopia I want to see? So that’s exciting, and just sort of keeping me going. It’s propulsive. 

The best I can do is make an amazing story, a story that loves Black women, that loves Black people and hope that folks get it, you know?

Playwright Aleshea Harris

I am interested in the role of the audience, and the specificity of audience, in your work. Another one of your plays What To Send Up When It Goes Down features a moment when you ask non-black audience members to leave the space. As a Black creator, do you feel like there are moments of Is God Is that are specifically for Black people? Do you have thoughts on how non-black people can take up less space when experiencing a story that is not specifically for them? 

Hmmm. That’s tricky. Because I understand, with Is God Is, I know all kinds of people are going to see it. So there’s a way that I go into the process with that in mind. Since I know that people from varied backgrounds are going to see it, I know that it’s going to impact upon Black women differently than it will upon white folks. I don’t spend a lot of energy on how to make the play say “I’m for Black People.” Because that feels outside of creating narrative, which is what I love to do, and it also feels like I’m trying to get in front of the ways that white people will center themselves, for example. I’m trying to get in front of anti-blackness which is a whole other job. You make the work and then you gotta shore it up and you gotta make sure that white people aren’t in the audience for example, or non-black people aren’t taking up too much space, or men aren’t taking up too much space. That to me is too daunting and makes it a less pleasant experience. I sort of move into playwriting with an understanding that people are gonna fuck this up no matter what I do, even with What to Send Up, somebody… some person…we’ve had experiences where a white person has moved one of the cast members bodily, physically out of their way so they could see better. There’s no way that I could ever predict that somebody would have that level of audacity, specifically, so I relieve myself again. This is what I do: I make a good story. I know Black women are going to have that moment, hopefully when Anaia looks out at us, and they’re gonna recognize something, that meta-moment when she looks out at us, she’s looking out at the world. She’s looking out at me. And I hope that that is affirming for Black women who read that, Black women who are “ugly” who read that. But I am not doing work to say “Everyone else, take up less space” because that feels like an exercise in futility. I’m a cynic. They’re gonna do it. The best I can do is make an amazing story, a story that loves Black women, that loves Black people and hope that folks get it, you know? Non-black folks need to do that work of figuring out how to take up less space. I can’t be responsible for the play (and I know you’re not holding me responsible) but I can’t be responsible for the play and the politics of this, and the way my work is going to be politicized by non-black folks, and the way folks will misunderstand this, that, and the other and like, teach them not to take up a lot of space. I mean it’s very specific in What to Send Up. In that work it’s just… “Remove them”. It’s just “bye.” But beyond that I don’t know. I don’t have an easy answer for that, and in this moment I don’t feel that I have to. My hope is that non-black theatre folks recognize, those who work in this field recognize, that anti-blackness is a problem and will do the work themselves, research for themselves, and think to themselves: How can I make the house, the audience, the lobby, everything safer for Black people–and Black women if we’re talking about misogynoir. 

You gave a speech at the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater this January, and shared some powerful thoughts on being a Black Writer. You talked about the need to “expand the picture” and consider the complete landscape in which the theatre space is situated. With this radio play, is there anything exciting about it getting decentered from the brick and mortar theatre when thinking about, as you said in that speech: “a more complete landscape: the audience, and the building, the city, its history and its bones”?

Western theatre brings a whole narrative with it…the proscenium, you know, arrived as part of a larger continuum. The Wilma–I don’t know the history of the Wilma and the relationships in the room. Where people are seated is part of a narrative and I wonder if this production that you all are putting on serves to disrupt some of that. First of all, who now gets to access this work that wouldn’t have been able to? How do they get to access it? Who’s now with them? Would their mother– is Mama sitting next to them and she wouldn’t have gone to the theatre [before social distancing]? So all of those things are really exciting. And also when I describe that moment [referenced in the Under the Radar speech] watching that play on Broadway where the white man yelled and it was deeply offensive and troubling to me, there are a few [audiences] that I’ve been in where the audience was…for a certain kind of play, when I’m seated in the audience there’s a fear that I have around exactly that kind of moment (when I’m forced to depart whatever is occurring onstage and contend with being Black in an audience which includes people who are anti-Black) and it’s happened a few times. And I describe some of those times in that speech. And I think alleviating that fear for marginalized folks whatever it is, if it’s a woman who can’t bear scenes of misogyny in film, or on stage, what does it mean for her to be able to take in Is God Is, which features depictions of violence against the bodies of women? What does it mean? Is it safer for her? Maybe it’s less safe? I think these are real questions. I’m pondering about the violence specifically because it can be quite triggering. I wonder what it does to have that exist as a sonic experience. Perhaps it’s worse. I don’t know. But all that to say, that typically we are in a [certain] space, and maybe [now] people will zoom out.

Anything else from your perspective that prepares people to experience this story?

I don’t have anything else. I enjoy coming to the theatre a little cold and I like to be surprised and I don’t want to put too much in people’s heads on the front end.