In the Red and Brown Water/by Tarell Alvin McCraney/directed by Shirley Jo Finney/Fountain Theatre/through December 16
Tarell Alvin McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water is an intriguing folk story set in Louisiana in the Distant Present incorporating an unmistakable classically tragedic format. It might be any time, any place. Blending the Yoruba culture of West Africa and the Spanish drama of Federico Garcia Lorca, particularly Yerma, the play is presented with the entire ensemble onstage throughout resembling a Greek chorus, who speak as well as break into festive song and dance. Guided by meticulous direction from Shirley Jo Finney, the entire cast joyously reverberate life in the face of death, now onstage at the Fountain Theatre through December 16.
In the Red and Brown Water is unusual, not your typical theatre fare for many reasons. One peculiarity involves the actors giving stage directions for each spoken set of lines. For example, ... she says in a sad expression, speaks Oya (Diarra Kilpatrick) after delivering her exchange to Mama Mojo (Peggy A. Blow). All of the characters do this, and as we are reminded, we are in a theatre like a holy temple where the actors are relating a story for us and we must approve of the journey that they are about to undertake. Oya's story like Lorca's Yerma is a simple one: she is unable to conceive and in spite of her motherly yearnings, all of the love connections she experiences turn sour, leaving her deeply unhappy. For Oya, there is Ogun (Dorian Christian Baucum) the stuttering laborer with whom she lives and Shango, the studly soldier (Gilbert Glenn Brown) to whom she is intensely attracted. Oya in Yoruban terms means goddess of wind, river and storms; Ogun, deity of iron and metal work; Shango, god of fire and lightning. The triangle is explosive for the two men, fiery for Oya but with undesired results. Her Aunt Elegua (Iona Morris), known as a trickster and shape shifter, adds fuel to the fire creating sexual tension with her own womanly needs, and two of the gossipy townsfolk Nia (Maya Lynne Robinson) and Shun (Simone Missick) are consistently around to taunt/ridicule Oya about her barren state. Oya's neighbor Elegba (Theodore Perkins), meaning messenger of change, is a boy when the play begins but quickly faces manhood caring for a baby of his own. Despite their deep affection for one another Elegba is yet another painful reminder to Oya that she is still without child.
Theatre fans of Lorca's drama will see the parallels with Yerma, but all of his work utilizes the moon. Several characters in ...Water mention it: "...the moon behind the clouds, gone but still there..." "...like the moon during the day, there but not saying anything". La luna or moon for Lorca is pivotal in his poetry as it not only represents night, but also foretells of lust, conflict and eventual death.
Finney's fluid staging, along with Ameenah Kaplan's terrific choreography, which never allow the actors to sit or stand still very long, are majorly responsible for making the piece soar. It seems to take flight early on, and despite death, disappointment and even an intense emotional breakdown by Oya, the melancholy tone lifts rapidly and we become joyfully connected to the characters' intentions/actions. The entire cast is magical with Kilpatrick wondrous as Oya. She is beautiful, graceful and so richly one with Oya's skin. Blow and Morris as the older character women/earth mothers bring a grounded sense of reality to Oya's plight. Baucum and Brown masterfully show the macho, selfish side of love, and Stephen Marshall as the bigoted O Li Roon, the sole white man in the ensemble, is delightful in multiple role playing. Frederica Nascimento's set, Naila Aladdin Sanders' costumes and Jose Lopez' lighting design all add culturally vibrant touches.