In the Red and Brown Water is a stunning piece of theater by the School of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland at the state of the art Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Directors Scott Reese and Alvin Mayes (who also choreographed) have created a moving, heartbreaking yet deeply funny production of this unique play.
The play is part of a trilogy called The Brother/Sister Plays by young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney that premiered in 2008. He mixes drama, poetry, dance, and highly stylized movement and rhythm to create a play about a young woman trying to eek out a life in southern Louisiana, first as a high school sprinting star with a shot out of town, then as caretaker to her ailing mother, and then as partner and friend to three different men and the community. But Oya is also a goddess in West African Yoruban mythology and the three men are three Orishas (other gods) she’s commonly associated with.
The mythic story echoes in each relationship, and the wind is a very powerful theme; she is the goddess commonly associated with wind. But it is also an innovative performance piece, where actors recite poetry-like dialogue as they turn common movement into dance in a style called Choreopoem, first popularized by playwright Ntozake Shange. One true delight about this playwright’s style though is that the story is tragic and the myths are deep, but he never seems to take it or himself too seriously. One continual source of laughter and more poetry is that the stage directions are often a part of the dialogue. For instance, Oya will announce that she’s sighing or laughing and then she’ll sigh and laugh. It’s humorous because it adds a self-awareness to rolls that otherwise may have fallen into melodrama.
Erica Philpot (Mama Mojo) makes the best use of this style. There’s one magic moment when she enters and announces, “Enter Mama Mojo” like she owns the stage and she does. Adriyah Young as Oya anchors the play with an understated and earnest performance. Christopher Lane (Elegba) has the most ground to cover from a young boy to a grown man and father and makes it believable. Vaughn Ryan Midder (Ogun Size) plays one of the men in Oya’s life and is another actor that really understands the style of the play and uses the odd asides and his stuttering dialogue to great and tragic effect. David Samuel (Shango) is commanding on stage and gains the greatest laughs in the evening as he acts out what the women at church are gossiping to one another. Sisi Reid (Aunt Elegua) is simply hilarious. Really the whole cast is very strong. No one star performer has to carry the piece. Every actor on stage turns in a great, heartfelt performance.
I’ve never seen a director make better use of sound and his stage. There are a great many songs – all done a cappella – from traditional spirituals to rhythmic drumming on a trash can to rhythmic choreography, to top 40 classics. Even his dances seem to incorporate rhythm and sound into every move. He is aided by a sound design by Neil McFadden that subtly enhances the mood but successfully leaves the heavy lifting to the actors and their hands and feet. As the play shifts between the chreopoetry and more traditional interactive scenes, it’s hard to tell what is natural and what is careful blocking as the transitions are seamless and the actors move all over the stage and down into the audience. At one point, they stage a chase scene between a shop owner and a boy stealing candy through the rows themselves as audience members scramble out of the way of the heedless and gleeful actors.
The set design by Ruthmarie Tenorio-Brink is both evocative and simple. A large triangle spears into the audience and a single iron railing and stairs conjures the front porch of Oya’s house where the drama takes place. A rocking chair for Mama Mojo and a few overturned buckets are the only furniture. Beyond that simplicity is a stark brick wall half covered in plaster that evokes silhouettes of runners, Oya’s face, and the wind in the shadows. It’s a beautiful piece of art all by itself. Above that, wrought iron and draped moss perfectly conjure Louisiana. It is lit in a de-saturated yellow lighting design by Robert Denton, which also helps with that feeling of a hot, summer, Southern night. Costume designer Aryna Petrashenko continues the theme with washed out, tired yet simple and effective clothes, all of a similar pallet that also add to the mood they’re trying to create. Scene, costume and lightning work together excellently in a way that many productions don’t achieve.
This is such an ambitious piece that it could have been a real train wreck – trying to reconcile epic myths and tragedy with contemporary African-American culture and a modern plot and that’s before the poetry, music, dance, and unconventional dialogue, but in the hands of these directors and these passionate, young performers, it succeeds. Every moment is well-designed, well-acted, powerful, and often hilarious. It makes for one of the most enjoyable nights of theater I’ve experienced in a long time.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and fifteen minutes, with a 15 minute intermission.
In the Red and Brown Water plays through November 16, 2012 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center – at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193, in College Park, MD. For tickets, please call (301) 405-ARTS (2787) or purchase online.