Review – In the Red & Brown Water at Trustus Theatre

review_intheredandbrownwaterBy: Kyle Petersen

In the Red & Brown Water isn’t like most plays.

Written as part of a trilogy of works by playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney, the play, directed by Chad Henderson and opening this past Friday at Trustus Theatre, opens with a whispered song, a ghostly invocation of an ancient Yoruban orisha, or spirit. “Oya in the air…”

On the surface, this is an archetypal coming-of-age tale of family, love, heartbreak, and loss, set in a close knit community and lined with a few surprises along the way. But that’s on the surface—in reality, McCraney infuses the play with mythical and lyrical layers, pulling ancient storytelling traditions into the present with poetic insistency. Yoruban cosmology and Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Yerma” both heavily inform the action here, along with a host of other allusions, giving a simple story some dazzling chops; This virtuosity is accentuated by McCraney’s use of self-conscious dramatic tricks, like the characters incessantly giving the audience their stage directions, as well as his frank and refreshing words of wisdom on sexuality and courtship. It is, if nothing else, a masterly feat of writing that explains why the young playwright has become one of the theatre world’s quickly rising stars since his graduation from the Yale School of Drama’s MFA program in 2007.

But back to surfaces. The play is the story of Oya, a track and field star torn between accepting a tantalizing athletic scholarship to college, the tempestuous wooing of eager romantic partners, and the desire to stay home and care for her ailing mother. She initially chooses the latter, sparking off a chain of loss and disappointment which feels poignantly familiar to the generic urban blight from which the play pulls its inspiration. Oya is played by Trustus company member Avery Bateman, the kind of seasoned young performer who can really dig deep into the role. The joy, indecision, and confusion which plague Oya throughout are given full color, particularly the insular depression that befalls her when she becomes increasingly concerned with bearing a child.

Bateman is helped by a host of dependable figures on-stage, among them Annette Dees Grevious, who plays Mama Moja, and Katrina Blanding, who provides an energetic portrayal of the ribald Aunt Elegua. Both inject warmth and nuance into roles that flirt with stereotypes—the former through steadfast humanity and the latter by shirking social niceties and being forthright about sexual and romantic desire. Bakari Lebby also turns in a strong Trustus debut as Elegba, the silly-yet-mysterious figure whose playful shenanigans and whimsical philosophizing give the play both its broad range and mystical depth. The sly revelation of his character’s bisexuality, a scene helped by Leroy Kelly as The Egungun, is also played with adroit sensitivity.
It’s in the play’s love triangle where things get sticky. That’s not to say that either Kendrick Marion as Shango or Jabar Hankins as Ogun Size give bad performances, but something is lacking in how the chemistry between them and Bateman manifests itself. Marion nails the impetuous, near-chauvinistic quality inherent in Shango, but the physicality of the attraction between he and Oya is spoken of more than shown, even in a rather cleverly-choreographed sex scene that comes across sharply and effortlessly. Similarly, Hankins imbues Ogun Size with a quiet-yet-strong sense of romance and fidelity that is utterly believable, but falters when you expect more palpable tension with Shango. Putting this down to solely a bit of stockiness in writing, a miscasting, or rough execution feels unfair, but nonetheless it is a rough note in a performance otherwise firing on all cylinders.

Deserved praise also goes to scenic designer Kimi Maeda, who delivers an elegantly minimalist, almost skeletal line of row houses with open doors that form a slight curve across the stage and give a lovely to the story. The iconic framework of the houses and their mix of austerity and community vividly capture the “distant present” of McCraney’s fictional housing project in San Pere, Louisiana and emphasize the sense of timeless and spatial drift that the playwright uses to elide the distance between past and present. The ensemble as a whole also made the most of their combined vocal talents, using a wordless, repeated vocal theme that moved the play along effortlessly from scene to scene and gave various singers a chance to shine in the vocal lead as well. Indeed, much of the magic seems to come from the small tweaks and idiosyncrasies of the play, its nontraditional style and streetwise language winning you over even as the story itself seems to move in broad motions.

But above all, Trustus itself deserves plaudits simply for investing in the work of a new, cutting-edge playwright, one who is invested in the fundamental building blocks of drama even as he’s pushing the craft forward and sidewise. Also importantly, In the Red & Brown Water speaks to the idea of Other Souths and othered peoples, tackling issues of poverty, race, class, heritage, and sexuality in a way that is timeless as it is refreshingly new. As difficult as such approaches and subject matter might be for casual theatre fans, these are the kinds of plays that are simply begging for life, both in our myopic cultural milieu and in the broader traces of the deep iniquities in our society.

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