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Stage premiere illustrates one way Pittsburgh's arts scene can get more diverse

Shannon Williams stars in "Is God Is," at barebones productions.
Duane Rieder
Shannon Williams stars in "Is God Is," at barebones productions.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

As the arts community continues trying to cultivate greater diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s important to remember that Pittsburgh’s scene doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Things that happen around the country (and beyond) have ripple effects.

Take theater troupe barebones productions’ staging of “Is God Is,” which opens Fri., Feb. 24. Company founder and artistic director Patrick Jordan first read Black playwright Aleshea Harris’ revenge drama in 2018. But he might never have heard of it had off-Broadway’s Soho Repertory Theatre not staged it that year, when the production won three Obies, which recognizes excellence in off-Broadway theater.

Jordan was taken with the script immediately. “It was everything I love about the theater,” he said, citing the raw conflicts and edgy, pop-savvy tone in this story about twin sisters who journey to California to find the long-lost father who set the fire that scarred them and their mother. In 2016, when the still-unproduced “Is God Is” won the Relentless Award, the American Playwriting Foundation cited its blend of "the ancient, the modern, the tragic, the Spaghetti Western, hip-hop and Afropunk.” The New York Times has called Harris “a snarly new master of high-octane carnage.”

Plus, there will be blood, which barebones audiences have come to expect.

Barebones has long featured diverse casts, in productions like 2008’s “Take Me Out” and 2019’s “Dance Nation”; Javon Johnson, who directs and co-stars in “Is God Is,” played the title role in the troupe’s 2015 production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” (Johnson, who has deep roots in Pittsburgh theater, is quite a get for barebones – the veteran actor and director played Richard Hallsen on Tyler Perry’s BET series “The Oval.”)

But while Jordan didn’t put it in these terms, “Is God Is” is surely the Blackest production in his modestly sized company’s distinguished 20-year history. It’s barebones’ first production of a work by a Black playwright. The eight-member cast, led by Shannon Williams and Sarai Quince, is all Black. And the original score is by guitarist and composer Byron Nash, a seemingly ubiquitous part of Pittsburgh’s music scene.

Jordan had originally planned to stage the show in 2020, but then … well, you know. He’s excited to produce it now, in part because, unlike so many plays he comes across, it’s clearly written for the stage, not the screen. The characters, for instance, sometimes speak aloud not only their inner thoughts but also their stage directions. “It’s very much a play, and not a movie,” he said.

Intentionality is of course crucial to increasing diversity, whether it’s arts groups hiring leaders of color for the first time or a city’s first Black mayor seeking to make the appointees to a new arts commission reflect the city as a whole. But diversity also advances when arts leaders simply have more options – the kind of options a small theater company might get in 2023 because an off-Broadway outfit chose to produce a play like “Is God Is” in 2018.

Jordan’s been reading scripts with an eye toward staging them at barebones for 20 years. He said he’s now seeing work by a more diverse set of playwrights than ever. “It’s great,” he said. “There’s so much more out there now.”

“Is God Is” will be staged at barebones’ blackbox theater, in Braddock, Fri., Feb. 24, to March 12. More info is here.

"Geometric #4," a triptych by Sioux artist Harvey Herman, is in "Action/Abstraction Redefined," opening Sunday at the Westmoreland Museum.
IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, NM
MoCNA Collection
"Geometric #4," a triptych by Sioux artist Harvey Herman, is in "Action/Abstraction Redefined," opening Sunday at the Westmoreland Museum.

WESA's Weekend Picks

  1. “Breaking Down the Walls: building empowerment,” a storytelling event centered on mental health, is hosted by The Branch (formerly Jewish Residential Services), on Thu., Feb. 23, at the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse, in Squirrel Hill.
  2. Cleveland’s No Exit New Music Ensemble performs a program of contemporary music at the University of Pittsburgh’s long-running Music on the Edge series, Sat., Feb. 25, at Bellefield Hall.
  3. Pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s silent 1920 drama “Within Our Gates” — considered the oldest surviving film by a Black director — gets a rare screening courtesy of Jump Cut Theater, Feb. 25, at the Parkway Theater, in McKees Rocks.
  4. The touring stage version of the popular podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” — set in a Southwest desert town “where every conspiracy theory is true” — visits the Roxian Theatre, Sun., Feb. 26.
  5. The touring exhibition “Action/Abstraction Redefined: Modern Native Art, 1945-75,” with 52 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by 32 artists, opens Sun., Feb. 26, at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, in Greensburg.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: