Theatre needs authentic and talented young voices, not just to survive but to grow and prosper. So, it’s a cause for celebration when one of those voices comes along. San Diego theatre goers can break out the champagne.
Over the next couple of months, we get two opportunities to experience the work of Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose breakout trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays has excited audiences around the country, most recently at the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, where Mr. McCraney is a company member.
Two of the three plays in the trilogy are scheduled to perform here, and the first, In the Red and Brown Water, opened Monday for a short run at the Mandell Weiss Forum, courtesy of UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance. The second, The Brothers Size, opens at the Old Globe’s White Theatre in January.
Mr. McCraney is clearly a theatrical heir of playwright August Wilson, and Mr. Wilson served as a mentor during his graduate playwriting education at Yale. Mr. McCraney’s work, like that of his mentor, is a product of big ideas and bold theatricality while at the same time honing to the cultural traditions of the African American community.
In the Red and Brown Water was the second play that Mr. McCraney wrote for the trilogy, but it is the first play in chronological time, and it serves not only to introduce characters who appear in the other plays but also to foreshadow the action of those plays. Each play stands on its own, but if you plan to see The Brothers Size next month you should have a deeper and richer experience by seeing In the Red and Brown Water first.
Subtitled “A Fast and Loose Play on Spanish Yerma and African Oya/Oba,” In the Red and Brown Water dizzyingly appropriates its theatricality from Spain’s García Lorca and its spirit from the Yoruba culture of central Africa. The plot comes from Lorca’s Yerma, a play about a barren woman who is shunned for being so by the local villagers. But, even though Mr. McCraney resets his play to a Louisiana housing project, he retains Lorca’s poetic style and some of Lorca’s storytelling methods.
And, he overlays a very realistic tale of African American life with Yoruba ideas about how names predestine individuals by describing qualities that will dominate their lives. Indeed, Mr. McCraney’s character names reflect Yoruba deities and the qualities they represent. For example, Oya, Mr. McCraney’s heroine, is a runner and her primary life force comes from breathing, a quality of her Yoruban namesake. Other characters are similar: Elegba is the trickster, Ogun has a big heart, Shango represents virility, and Oshun (Shun for short) represents fertility and sensuality.
The tale Mr. McCreary tells is a lot more accessible than the rich tradition in which it is based. Oya (Chaz Hodges) excels at running, but she turns down a college scholarship to care for her ailing mother (Ngozi Anyanwu). Since she has not escaped the projects, she is courted by Shango (Ronald Washington) until he leaves for military service, and then Ogun Size (Gerard Joseph), a kind man who works hard and dreams of getting his own business going. When Oya does not become pregnant by either man, her world begins to fall apart, and her neighbor, Shun (Jasmine St. Clair), takes her place and becomes pregnant with Shango’s baby. Meanwhile, Oya’s godbrother, Elegba (Maurice Williams), who had an unrequited crush on her, gets another woman pregnant and is forced to confront not only his immature actions but his identity as a man. [php snippet=1]
Ogun Size, whose character is the only one that appears in all three plays, will become the focus of the second play, the three-character The Brothers Size. Elegba also appears in that play, and other characters from In the Red and Brown Water appear in the third play, Marcus: Or the Secret of Sweet.
UCSD theatre professor Gregory Wallace has coached his Red and Brown Water cast to perform with remarkable assurance, movingly portraying the script’s ritual and ceremony, pathos, and theatrical ecstasy. Before your eyes, the cast melds into an ensemble that supports the maxim that the whole is, indeed, greater than the sum of its parts.
Mr. McCraney’s remarkably unique voice should thrill serious San Diego play-goers. Make it a priority to catch In the Red and Black Water during its short run.