EXTENDED THROUGH OCT. 10!
Lakisha May as Oya flirts with danger in the form Isaiah Johnson as Shango in Marin Theatre Company’s In the Red and Brown Water. Below are members of the ensemble (from left) Ryan Vincent Anderson, Jared McNeill, Dawn L. Troupe, May and Daveed Diggs. Photos courtesy of www.kevinberne.com
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water feels like ritual. It feels like a party. It feels like living, breathing poetry. And that’s a hell of way to begin a prodigious three-play cycle involving three plays, three theaters and one playwright.
It fell to Marin Theatre Company to launch McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays, a trilogy produced in tandem with the Magic Theatre (up next with The Brothers Size) and American Conservatory Theater (wrapping things up with Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet). It’s probably hardest to be first, but you wouldn’t know it from the production that shimmered on stage in Mill Valley Tuesday night.
Director Ryan Rilette’s In the Red and Brown Water couldn’t be a more auspicious beginning. This is a play so full of powerfully beautiful language and fluid storytelling that you don’t want to get in its way. Rilette wisely lets set and lighting designer York Kennedy work his magic on a seemingly empty stage that quickly becomes populated by the people, places and dreams of San Pere, Louisiana.
In the center of the stage is a raised platform. Poles stacked with lights line the sides of the stage, and there’s a small set of risers against the back wall. That’s it, but nothing more is needed. Lydia Tanji’s costumes are simple and contemporary but evoke character through fabric colors and the amount of skin allowed to show under the clothes. You know a certain character is trouble when he enters in a skin-tight tank top brandishing a bandana as if it were a weapon of sexual destruction.
Combining myths and characters from the Yoruba (West Africa) and Santeria (Cuba by way of the Yoruba, Spanish Catholic and Native American traditions) cultures, McCraney tells the sad story of Oya (Lakisha May), the goddess of change, transition and chaos. In this tale, she’s a talented young high-school track star who turns down a full-ride college scholarship so she can stay home with her ailing mother (Nicol Foster as Mama Moja, among other roles). A bright light in her community, Oya falls under the spell of the sultry Shango (Isaiah Johnson), whose folkloric roots are in male fertility. Oya finds herself torn between the brute masculinity of Shango and the more stable and loving Ogun (Ryan Vincent Anderson).
McCraney’s language is full of narrative, which the characters use to describe their own feelings as well as their entrances and exits. This has a distancing effect for the most part but can be used with humor (when the line is given certain attitude) or with poignancy, as when Ogun exits saying, “Ogun leaves his heart behind.”
A great deal of the poetry comes from the character Elegba (Jared McNeill), a randy young man who dreams portentous dreams and unleashes a steady stream of mischief. And a lot of the humor bubbles out of Aunt Elegua (Dawn L. Troupe), a busybody with a taste for younger men and speaking her mind.
The narrative threads are strong – we care about Oya and her increasingly troubled journey – though the second of the show’s two hours loses some momentum as Oya’s story forces her to become old before her time. But the graceful power of Rilette’s staging and the unfailing excellence of his cast (which also includes Jalene Goodwin, Josh Schell and Daveed Diggs) always keeps the play compelling.
The rhythms are all right here. The play begins with breathing and voices joined in music making. Later in the play, rhythm is re-established by breathing and drumming. And there’s a lot of singing, gorgeous, soulful singing. McCraney provided the words (and pulls in some traditional spirituals), and the cast came up with the music and arrangements (with an assist from music supervisor Zane Mark).
McCraney says in a program note that he wants to create something “distant yet present, something else.” And that’s exactly what he’s done. This is exquisitely beautiful theater, vital and contemporary yet steeped in tradition. Everything old is once again new.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Marin Theatre Company’s In the Red and Brown Water continues an extended run through Oct. 10 at 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org. To learn more about the Brother/Sister Plays cycle visit www.brothersisterplays.org.