The Wilma is bringing an early technique back for a new show

Danielle Leneé and Brett Ashley Robinson in ‘Is God Is.’
Wide Eyed Studios

With theaters switching mainly to the virtual front, many establishments including local Avenue of the Arts organization the Wilma Theater have found ways to still promote the creative abilities of the stage. With their latest venture, however, the arts-based company has found a way to implement an old strategy into present-day to help build a sense of refreshed nostalgia. 

This week, July 23 to 26, Philadelphians will be able to listen to the Wilma’s first ever full-length audio production, ‘Is God Is,’ in collaboration with 2X2L Programme and Die Cast. The show was written by Aleshea Harris and directed by Philadelphia-based performer and playwright James Ijames. Ijames is also one of the new co-artistic directors of the theater alongside founding Artistic Director Blanka Zizka, Morgan Green the co-founder of New Saloon (a Brooklyn-based experimental theater company), and Yury Urnov, an award-winning director with over 40 productions under his belt. 

‘Is God Is’ was originally supposed to hit the stage at the Wilma this year, but for obvious reasons with the current pandemic, the production was readjusted for audio. The show was first sought out by the Wilma through Zika after she saw a performance of the play’s world premiere at Soho Rep. After then hosting a reading of ‘Is God Is’ at the theater, Ijames immediately was interested in directing. 

James Ijames (right) with his co-artistic directors. Wide Eyed Studios

According to the release, in ‘Is God Is,’ a mother’s dying wish jump-starts the journey of scorned twin sisters Anaia and Racine. They go on a rip-roaring, cross-country adventure—from an Eastern metropolis to the deep South to the California desert—to exact righteous revenge. This fiercely modern new play combines the Spaghetti Western, hip-hop, Afropunk, and Old Testament justice for a thrilling listening experience.

“I think the use of genre (western, revenge tragedy) is beautifully married to an Afrofuturist aesthetic that I’m hungry for in the theater,” said Ijames in a statement. “This play is not concerned about being judged or being respectable. It’s main concern is with being ruthlessly honest.”

‘Is God Is’ has already won critical acclaim including the Obie Award for best new play and the Relentless Award from the American Playwriting Foundation. For the Wilma’s audio production of the show, the company will be featuring members of their HotHouse program, a five-year-old resident artist company that trains together and incubates new work, something that is also unique in the artistic world. Members participating include Danielle Leneé as Racine, Brett Ashley Robinson as Anaia, Melanye Finister as She, Akeem Davis as Chuck Hall, Anthony Martinez-Briggs as Scotch, Aaron Bell as Riley, Taysha Marie Canales as Angie, and Lindsay Smiling as Man. The sound design including original music for this particular audio production comes from Daniel Ison with Chris Sannino as co-sound designer and engineer. 

The production comes in partnership with Die-Cast, co-founded by Thom Weaver and Brenna Geffers. According to the release, the organization explores new relationships between visitor and space. Die-Cast incubates work within spaces that are often inaccessible to audiences or are not thought of as performative spaces. Weaver also serves as Executive Producer of The 2X2L Programme, a division of Die-Cast dedicated to exploring and producing Radio Theatre. 2X2L borrows techniques from early radio-theatre pioneers while employing contemporary sensibility and technology.​

Wilma Theater may be exploring old-world avenues to distribute creativity, but it works well with the current situation and might even spark more creativity on the audience’s end. It’s valuable to know that even in the face of a pandemic, there are still new or unique ways to consume art. 

‘Is God Is’ will be available from July 23-26 through a sliding scale donation starting at $10. However, those who already hold tickets for the original stage production will be sent a link to listen to the audio production automatically.

The Wilma’s innovation during tumultuous times does not stop there. The theater also recently announced their plan for an innovative Wilma Globe model where audience members will sit arena-style surrounded by two levels of audiences-boxes. Based on a number of historical models, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Wilma Globe is the result of planning and problem-solving to keep the Wilma moving forward.

What’s a bit different about this particular type of model is the fact that audience members will be separated from one another by wooden dividers, but open to the stage. The design is also adaptable as well, depending on the specific production and what it needs, it can be reconfigured into a semi-circle, horseshoe and more. The globe can fit audience sizes of 35-100 and will also provide more space and comfort for those trying to enjoy the show while simultaneously adhering to social distancing guidelines. This new set was designed by Misha Kachman, Sara Brown and Matt Saunders with important input from video designer Jorge Cousineau as well.

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