Reviewed by Judy Richter
Thanks to a partnership among three of its leading theater companies, the Bay Area is being introduced to a major new voice -- playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. Marin Theatre Company, Magic Theatre and American Conservatory Theater are each presenting a part of the West Coast premiere of his trilogy, "The Brother/Sister Plays."
MTC is starting the cycle with "In the Red & Brown Water," to be followed closely by "The Brothers Size" at the Magic and "Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet," opening at ACT in late October. "That three theaters could agree to mount a trilogy together speaks to the sheer genius, relevance and importance of Tarell's voice and vision," MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis said in a press release. "Not since the arrival of Sam Shepard and August Wilson has such universal praise been heaped on such a young playwright and his work," Minadakis continued.
The 30-year-old playwright penned the works while in his 20s. MTC's production of "In the Red & Brown Water" shows why McCraney is generating so much praise. Directed by MTC producing director Ryan Rilette, it's set in the imaginary San Pere, La., in the "Distant Present." Most of the characters are the black residents of a housing project in a small bayou town. Their names are based on West African gods, reflecting some of the story's mythological qualities. The central character is Oya (Lakisha May), a young woman who loves to run. She runs so fast that a college track coach tries to recruit her for his team, but she forgoes the chance for a college education to stay home with her ailing mother, Mama Moja (Nicol Foster).
After her mother dies, she has virtually no support system. The charismatic, macho, womanizing Shango (Isaiah Johnson) stays with her for a while, then joins the Army. He's replaced by Ogun (Ryan Vincent Anderson), a steady, hard-working but -- to Oya -- dull auto mechanic. Her bawdy godmother, Aunt Elegua (Dawn L. Troupe), offers advice but not much solace. A friend, the annoyingly amoral Elegba (Jared McNeill), is something of a constant but not much help either. Other characters are the catty, flirtatious Shun (Jalene Goodwin), and her friend, Nia (Foster again). Daveed Diggs plays the Egungun, a disc jockey. The only white characters -- the track coach and a shopkeeper -- are both played by Josh Schell.
References to Oya's blood symbolize her various struggles. The struggle that gains more prominence is her hope to become pregnant. Concurrently, she never stops loving Shango, who -- perhaps unintentionally -- toys with her emotions.
May is superb as Oya, who figures in virtually every scene during the taut, two-hour, two-act play. Each of the other actors seems tailor-made to his or her role -- a credit both to the actors and to director Rilette.
Scenic and lighting designer York Kennedy's set is unadorned except for a central platform that serves as Oya's house. There are no other set pieces and few props. Banks of lights flank the stage, and actors who aren't in a scene usually stand upstage watching. This approach is in keeping with McCraney's device of having the actors speak their stage directions, such as "Oya smiles" or "Enter Shango." The simple costumes are by Lydia Tanji. Zane Mark serves as music supervisor for the songs that occasionally accompany the action. The sound design is by composer Chris Houston. Deborah Sussel serves as dialect coach.
"In the Red & Brown Water" is a terrific introduction to the trilogy, making one eager to see the next two parts, which will have different casts and directors. It also is likely to attract new audiences to each of the three theaters, and that's all to the good.