Opening scene from the play Is God Is
JD Leslie (Anaia) and Oyin Oladeio (Racine) play sisters looking for redemption in Is God Is by Aleshea Harris. Image: NAC/Provided.
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Award-winning play comes to Ottawa from Toronto, along with the Black Out Night initiative

Anaia (JD Leslie) and Racine (Oyin Oladejo) thought their mother had died when they were young in the same fire that left them scarred. She didn’t. Years later, a letter from their mother summoned the twin sisters to her deathbed, where she had one more thing to ask: “Make your daddy dead.”

Is God Is is a spaghetti western that takes the girls on a journey to find their father and seek vengeance for their mother by destroying everything he cares about. That includes his new family, and a new set of twins.

It was violent. Other reviewers have compared Aleshea Harris’s play to a Tarantino movie. But the experience of watching the performance live, rather than on screen, was visceral. Watching the familial resentment unfold on stage immersed the audience in it; no one in the theatre could look away from the violence as it occurred.

While the actors and crew were preparing for opening night on Feb. 10, the National Arts Centre was receiving backlash from some news outlets about the Black Out Night initiative scheduled for Feb. 17.

Black Out started on Broadway in 2019. The experience has since been replicated in London, Los Angeles, Toronto, and now Ottawa.

When the Fulcrum spoke to NAC representatives Kondwani Mwase and Rose-Ingrid Benjamin last week, they listed the positives of Black Out.

Benjamin is an actor, but first experienced Black Out as a theatregoer when she saw Is God Is in Toronto. They said Black Out gave them a sense of community they’d never experienced before.

“As an actor, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room where I’m on stage and I look out [into a] crowd that looks predominantly like me, and definitely not in an audience. And so to be in a theatre, to see a professional show with friends, peers … and to have the entire room look and feel like me was … a gift.”

According to the description on Ticketmaster, “The NAC will be hosting our first evening dedicated to Black audience members. We will be welcoming Black audience members to come and experience live theatre in community with each other. Everyone is welcome at all our shows”.

That was the experience she was trying to bring to Ottawa when she proposed Black Out to the NAC. Allowing theatregoers from underrepresented communities to feel represented in the performances they are coming to watch.

Mwase agreed, “Our strategic plan is really about building. Building communities, building with communities, and making sure that we engage them in ways that are interesting, and just having them feel a sense of belonging at the National Art Center”.

Black Out is in line with the other initiatives the NAC promotes, such as the under-30 program ($15 tickets), and Indigenous theatre, among “countless other initiatives”.

For now, the NAC is focused on welcoming everyone to the theatre. Mwase put their plan for the future into words: long-term planning, but staying focused on the present.

“Certainly our plan is to continue to do all kinds of different curated intentional invitations to different communities. You know, that is the way we’re kind of stepping forward … I don’t want to necessarily get caught up in next year, and five years from now. It’s like, ‘hey, we’ve got a great play that’s going on right now. So come out and make sure you see that play right now. Let’s not blow past it’.”

Is God Is will be on stage in Ottawa at the NAC until Feb. 18.