A conversation with ‘Is God Is’ performers Brett Ashley Robinson and Danielle Leneé

July 20, 2020

Danielle Leneé and Brett Ashley Robinson star in Is God Is. Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.

Is God Is’ performers Brett Ashley Robinson and Danielle Leneé spent the month of June preparing for their first experience with a radio play. Brett (who plays Anaia) and Danielle (who plays Racine) spoke with me about bringing these characters to life while quarantined in their own homes. The following is a transcript from a Zoom conversation. Please enjoy!
Production Dramaturg Alexandra Espinoza

When did your relationship with this play start, and how did that relationship evolve up until First Rehearsal?

Brett Ashley Robinson: I’m in the Wilma Resident Company, the HotHouse, and it was one of the plays that was up for consideration for this season, so we all read it as a group. It was such an exciting read in the room, and so funny, and so dark and kind of horrifyingly violent, and so empowering and painful. And I think that’s the fodder in the material that the Wilma is interested in: living in these huge, desperate extreme situations. But also, with a ton of humanity and a ton of heart. This play feels very aligned with the Wilma’s interest and values, but also inherently Black and inherently feminist. it forces Black women to be seen in ways that we don’t often get to see them and casts them in a role and a genre that we rarely see them playing the lead roles in. So often Black women seem like they are the bodies that action is taken against, or the support upon which other people can move forward and [then go] live the actual narrative, and I think this play forces you to stay with Black women’s bodies for a long time, being the agents of this narrative. And actually, very much the agents of chaos in the play.

Danielle Leneé: I was first introduced to this play through a friend. Later, I was asked to audition for it. I read the play and I was immediately struck by the beauty in the chaos. It made me think of some of the work I did in the past with women who are in the prison system, and also women who are sex trafficking victims. I was struck by the physical manifestation of violence on black women’s bodies [through their burns], and I felt inspired to explore the telling of that story. Because I think too often we try to erase parts of our narrative that don’t readily fit into the society that we live in. For example, we hear often of the Angry Black Woman stereotype and this has somehow created the narrative that Black women can’t be angry and they can’t be mad, although they have so many reasons to be so. The burden to tell our, black women’s, full stories and have that seen and represented onstage brought me to this process.

Obviously getting into this radio play production process was different than usual, with a all sorts of roadblocks. Do you feel like the experience of encountering these characters during a pandemic has changed your relationship to those characters in any way?

DL: I think for me it makes me think more about things that I would put into my body to tell a story that now has to be placed into my voice. It has to be conveyed through pacing, tone, rhythm. Telling a story just audibly is completely different than being able to experience, see, and live in a story. And so, I think that’s one of the main things that’s changed for me. It’s really considering and thinking: How am I telling the story sonically?

 BR: I think the moments are [actually] really similar. I think that, at least what I’m experiencing right now, is this huge shift, not only nationally and especially locally in Philly, even on my block, there’s been so much violence and policing even in the past 48 hours on my block, and how although that is true, and this truth has always existed in me physically and emotionally for such a long time, this moment feels like a shaking of that inside myself. And that also feels very true about these two young women in this play. They’ve spent their whole lives knowing this truth about their history and their identity but only now, in this moment, when their mother is about to die, are they thrust into this new place. It’s the question of: when do the things you know become realized? And I think that’s true of this moment, and I think it’s true of these young women in this play. What does it mean to hold all this trauma and what does it mean now to not only have to live in it, but be activated and pulled by it?

It’s kind of a dramaturg’s cliché to ask the question “Why this play now?” but because of what the “Now” is, it actually feels like a fascinating question. Why is it important to experience this play right now?

BR: I think what’s important about this play in this moment is that it is urgent, immediate, and it is filled with blood and guts. And that’s what this moment feels like. I think we’re so used to seeing this story played out on cis male bodies, and this idea of revenge and this idea… of something that is larger than yourself, and that’s also what this moment feels like. It’s actually like this moment also calls back to my ancestors and my ancestors’ trauma…[The dynamic between ‘She’ and ‘Man’] feels [Greek], like Zeus and Hera’s relationship, and [Anaia and Racine are] between these two people, and they’re being pushed by something that they are not entirely sure is true. They don’t get the whole truth from either parent. And it forces momentum… If that letter had never arrived they would have lost out on their destiny. I think in some ways it also speaks to this moment we are in and working towards a new future. We are being compelled to a new destiny. That feels really similar to me.

DL: I think for me, we’ve surpassed the moment when we should be able to see Black women tell stories and it’s not your cliché, typical role. This play should have been written long ago, where Black women have a platform or a space where they can fully exist and fully show all aspects of who we are and for that to be seen, and for that to be discussed. I think it’s high time that that has happened and is happening. I think in terms of what we are experiencing right now in terms of the pandemic and this revolution, I don’t think the revolution is anything new. I think this is something that we as Black bodies have been experiencing before we were even born. Our parents were born into it, our grandparents, our ancestors were born into this trauma. So, this isn’t something new for us. However, I do think this pandemic has exacerbated [things], and the murder of Black bodies [during the pandemic] was a straw that broke all of our backs. So, I think this explosion in reaction to seeing what we have already been seeing isn’t surprising or new to me. But I do think that this play right now is in an optimal space to hear our voices and really see us. And that’s why I kind of mourn not being able to do this on stage, to physically be able to see Black bodies live in these experiences, these two women exist in these spaces, because I do think that these are stories that have already been told. These are narratives that I’ve heard in my own life, but the world has not seen or accepted them. So I think, in terms of “why this play now?”… It’s about time.

I think what’s important about this play in this moment is that it is urgent, immediate, and it is filled with blood and guts.

Brett Ashley Robinson

Anything else you’d want to share about this process or making art in this moment?

DL: I mean, I think it’s hard. I’m a theatrical artist. I live to be in physical spaces with people. I love hugs. I love contact. I love those things. These are things that make up who I am as a lover, as a person who is compassionate, as a storyteller. So this is different. Being in [my] closet and looking at people’s faces [on screens] is completely different than being in a rehearsal space. But I do think the way we’ve been able to collaborate and talk about this work is new. And I’ve had to wrestle with my own feelings towards it to find the pleasure in what we’re doing, and to find the joy in art making in this form. Although it was thrust upon me, the pandemic kind of thrust this upon all of us, to have to do it in this way, it has taught us the beauty and the simplicity in being able to tell stories in any type of platform, in any way. So I think this process has definitely allowed me to connect back to the beauty and simplicity of just what art is for me. And what creating is and being able to share beautiful stories that can happen anywhere. You can always do it. There’s always space and time and a need for art making. And so—as much as this process has been a constant new discovery, it has also been a gift.

BR: I feel surprisingly excited. I think that there is no returning, or not for a great deal of time at least, to theatre in the ways that we know it, and I think that gives us an opportunity to not only just try to create the facsimile or the copy of what theatre used to be, but start to expand the vocabulary of what theatre can be, and how that affects accessibility in all its forms. How are we allowing people who would not be able to enter the theatre, just physically, [to participate]? How are we now able to reach theatregoers who aren’t able to sit in a theatre for long periods of time? How are we able to reach theatregoers who could not afford, or didn’t have the interest but maybe listened to podcasts? This is an opportunity I think for theatre makers to start re-imagining what theatre and the art practice is. And I think that’s a real gift. I had really big dreams of doing this show, and still have really big dreams of doing this show in the way and in the style that I had conceived, but I think the best thing about being an artist is your adaptability and that your creativity is your own. So in some ways this is also just a great opportunity to work in a new form. I love podcasts and it’s not actually a really far leap from that to a radio play. And so in some ways, I’m actually better versed and have a better relationship with this form than I thought. And to devote yourself to a new practice and to be curious about that practice is also a lesson and a gift. So I’m trying to hold all those things at once and trying to remember that just because I made work in a theatre up until this point, that does not mean the theatre is gone. The location is not available to us but the practice of narrative and storytelling and talking to people about humanity, teaching people, reminding people about our humanity is always at the core. And to see it as an opportunity. There are some days where I really excel at that and there are some days where I am less successful. But I do feel like we are learning how to transform what theatre is.

DL: I agree!

I think I know this play in a different way because of working on it as a radio play. I think it’s an exciting way to be able to step through their experience, maybe in a more intimate way because there’s no physical proximity, so now the proximity is so intimate, because it’s just audio.

BR: It’s also very intimate work. What’s interesting, at least for me, most of the time everybody’s cameras are off. It’s just me listening. The communication link is so strong between all the actors involved. There’s so much that is expressed through the body that now has to be put through the voice that the whole experience is actually very intimate. And you can only hear the other person and you’re listening with all your attention. It releases you from paying attention to what your body [is doing]. Sometimes in rehearsal I’m like “Am I standing weird? Am I making a gross face?” And there are all these other things. But when we’re doing this work, all of your attention is to that other person or those other people in that scene with you.

DL: And we haven’t even talked about how sounds like flies, or hearing pill bottles, or walking in a space really transports us to those spaces that Anaia and Racine are living in. There is something about really believing, with the help of the sound, that I am there with Anaia–with Brett. So when we have our cameras off, and I’m saying these words, just listening to her, it feels like I’m walking or hiking up a mountain in California. It literally feels like I’m in these spaces. Whereas when I’m on a physical set, there is more suspending the disbelief because we’re not creating all of those things. This isn’t a movie, so we [couldn’t] have [had] all of these different locations just in this one set. And so I think aurally, it really kind of helps transport the listener to this intimate space of just walking with them.

BR: Also, in a world of always being on Zoom, it is so nice to just enjoy material that you can consume on your own time while doing something else. Like I often imagine that people will be listening to this radio play while making dinner.

DL: Washing dishes, right!

BR: Or like, vacuuming their house, or gardening, and I’m like…that actually is the magic, right? Even watching television now is a little exhausting because you’re like “Oh my gosh I just was on Zoom for like 4 hours and now I’m gonna watch Project Runway and you’re like…Jesus, how much have I been watching a screen?” And now it invites your imagination to fill in the blanks.

I’ve always kind of felt like it’s a big ask to ask someone to come and sit in the dark, and for at least an hour give every single ounce of their attention to the story in front of them. Now, in a way, the ask is the inverse. It’s us knocking on someone else’s door and being like, “Oh can I come over for dinner? Can I sit on your couch while you’re doing your housework?” It is a very different ask for the audience and that is exciting.

BR: I think that’s a useful way to think about it. That what we’re doing is making ourselves available, we’re required to devote the attention and time so that you can enjoy it on your own terms, as opposed to people being like, well I have to make sure I pee because it’s 7:58. And I have to have my cup of coffee because if I don’t, I’ll be drowsy by 9:30.

DL: And I need to know the exact moments I’m gonna laugh…because I want [the performers] to know I am here to support and I am watching.

BR: I am here to do a good job! I am here to be a good audience member!

DL: It does take a lot of the pressure off of listeners having to be active listeners, and presently showcase what active listening looks like. It’s not just listening. There is a physical embodying of active listening. And so, it does take away that pressure, and [you can] just really experience a piece but also pause it if you need to, rewind a moment, you can’t do that on stage! Oooh… I wonder if there is a play that allows the audience to rewind moments. That would be cool.

Is God Is by Aleshea Harris streams July 23-26, 2020. To get access to the stream make a donation of at least $10 by clicking here.

Photos on this page from Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.