Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu follows up her award- winning 21 Black Futures project with a production of Aleshea Harris’s explosive play Is God Is

BY GLENN SUMI glenns@ nowtoronto. com · @ glennsumi



NOW Magazine


IS GOD IS by Aleshea Harris, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, with Tyrone Benskin, Matthew G. Brown, Oyin Oladejo, Savion Roach, Sabryn Rock, Alison Sealy- Smith, Vanessa Sears and Micah Woods. Presented by Obsidian Theatre, Necessary Angel and Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre ( 26 Berkeley). Runs to May 22. $ 29-$ 84. canadianstage. com. Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu can’t remember when she first discovered Aleshea Harris's Is God Is, but says it was one of the plays she read after she’d been announced as Obsidian’s new artistic director in January 2020 and before COVID shut everything down. “I was reading scripts and thinking about what my first season could look like, and I fell in love with this play,” says the Dora Award- winning director. “It is such an audacious, poetic, visceral piece.” Influenced by everything from Greek tragedy and Afro punk to hip- hop, Is God Is looks at two twins who survived a horrible childhood fire and have been instructed by their mother to track down their father, who lit that fire. It deals head- on with the hot topic of intergenerational trauma, particularly in a Black family. “That’s something I haven’t seen done before,” says Otu. “It looks at what is passed down from generation to generation in an intimate but also epic way. And in a way it looks at the root of violence in Black communities. These aren’t just two killing sisters; their violence comes from a place of neglect and abandonment. How do you find out who you are and your place in the world when you’re operating from [ a place of neglect] in the world?” Otu got to speak to Harris in a talk organized by York University’s theatre department, and one of the themes Harris brought up was the idea of respectability politics. “That ‘ They’re just like us’ argument has been used as a way to fight for equal rights for marginalized communities,” explains Otu. “Even though it’s in relation to the dominant culture. We often see Black women portrayed as stoic people who grin and bear things. And I think Harris wanted to challenge that by showing women who aren’t bound to so- called respectability, who are free to show a range of emotions, including rage.” In the multigenerational cast are two of the pioneers of Canadian theatre – Alison SealySmith, who was one of the co- founders of Obsidian, and Tyrone Benskin, a former artistic director of Black Theatre Workshop, Canada’s oldest Black theatre company. “We call them the parents,” laughs Otu. “They have such history. It’s great to have their wisdom along with the freshness of some of the younger cast members. Alison played the stoic matriarch in Soulpepper’s A Raisin In The Sun, and it’s nice to see her play the opposite of that here. This play isn’t concerned with what white people think about a Black family. It’s a revenge play, but it’s not a ‘ Take down all the white powers that be.’ That’s not what it’s concerned with.” Otu, whose first major project as Obsidian’s artistic director was the gargantuan 21 Black Futures project for CBC Gem – which recently won four Canadian Screen Awards – has instituted a couple of new initiatives for the company’s return to live performance. Both Is God Is and Obsidian’s upcoming production of Fatuma Adar’s musical Dixon Road include Black Out Night shows, specially curated nights that provide a safe space for Black audiences and community members. In addition, Otu has launched the Young, Gifted & Black training program to support Black artists in non- performance disciplines. “Not everyone has the privilege of being part of a Black community – they can be culturally isolated,” she explains. “And I wanted to give people that sense of community and also be attentive to the multiplicity of voices in the community. As for the training program, I’ve benefited from so many programs – at Obsidian, at Soulpepper. Many artists have never had a Black mentor. They’ve never worked in places where they don’t have to mute their cultural experience. This program will allow them that – and more.”