From the opening moments of Tarell Alvin McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water it's clear that there's a singular voice coming from the stage, one that has absorbed the stories of American and African cultures and used these mythic tales to describe his own experiences of life on the margins of society. To bring this rich story to life, director Marion McClinton assembles a packed cast of performers at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio who, with the aid of just a few mismatched lawn chairs, make the story as real as life on your street.
While it's led by Christiana Clark in a stunning turn in the lead role, the entire company does exemplary work in this Pillsbury House Theatre and Mount Curve Company co-production.
McCraney presents In the Red and Brown Water as an almost mythical tale, an effect intensified by the names McCraney employs from the Yoruba stories and mythology.
Set in the San Pere, Louisiana, projects, In the Red and Brown Water centers on Oya (also the Yoruba deity of the wind), a young woman whose gift for running may lead her out of the poverty she has known since birth. She receives an offer from a college recruiter (called the Man From State) and is thrilled, except that her beloved mother, Mama Moja, is gravely ill. Faced with a decision, Oya chooses her family, promising to keep training and make it to college the next year.
But Moja dies, and Oya's place on the track team is lost. She begins a long descent into emotional paralysis, taking lovers but often doing little more than watching the world from her porch. Two men fight for her hand: outgoing and somewhat brutish Shango (Ansa Akyea) and the shy, stuttering, but very solid Ogun (James A. Williams).
McCraney's story and words are as thick as the Louisiana air, and it would be easy for the poetry to fall flat on the stage, especially if the actors showed any hesitation with the dialogue or the frequent bits of narration, which not only let us know who is entering and exiting the stage but their inner emotional states.
Of course, the actors could convey their own emotions, but that's not the point. There's a real feel of ritual about all of this, a sense we are witnessing a story that has been told many, many times. It's not just the audience that watches—for most of the show, the company also sits and watches from the edges of the stage, still participating in the story even when they are not performing.
At the center of all this is Oya, brought to magnificent life by Clark, who adds another signature performance to her already impressive career. Oya is a deep character struggling to find some place in the world, and Clark gives us that in a nuanced performance. Some of the best stuff comes early on, as she banters with her loving mother, brought quickly and fully to life by Sonja Parks. Clark and Parks craft a relationship that feels old, comfortable, and familial in just a few short minutes.
In the Red and Brown Water is a captivating piece from beginning to end. McCraney has written a trilogy of plays in this setting. Here's hoping we don't have to wait too long to see the other two.