Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney lives in London and, indeed, his powerful In The Red And Brown Water (Pillsbury House Theatre performing in the Guthrie‘s Dowling Studio, through June 5) is written with an expatriate’s ardor. This begins with the play’s mythical smalltown Louisiana setting. Louisiana is, at least from this northerner’s perspective, the prime repository of all that is mysterious, poetic, fantastical and over-heated in American life. McCraney’s magic builds with the beautiful and ethereal names of the characters: Oya, Mama Moja, Ogun, Elegba, O Li Roon, etc. Then there’s the effective use of third person narrative: “Enter Elegba, quietly, like the afternoon moon.” This simple device gives the play size and theatricality. And the descriptions of dreams. You get the idea: this rich play works on a number of levels, simultaneously.
The story, played out with an nice combination of comedy and poetic drama, is straightforward: Oya, a brilliant runner, gives up her shot at a scholarship in order to care for her ailing mother, Mama Moja. Moja dies, leaving Oya alone, treading water, engaging in that traditional southern activity: settin’ on the porch. Oya makes tentative attempts to connect with the lascivious Shango, then with the plodding and stuttering (but faithful and powerful) Ogun. Her growing need to feel new life, a baby, growing inside her, takes the play to a shattering conclusion, which I will refrain from describing.
Does all this land? Perhaps (and now the reviewer takes a deep shaky breath because he has to say something critical) not. The lyrical comedy, the moon-driven theatricality is terrific, as is the play’s ambitiousness. But Oya’s desire for pregnancy feels a touch tacked on, a way of providing a conclusion. A small complaint, this, given the complex beauty of In The Red And Brown Water.
Is there better acting to be found in the cities – or anywhere? I doubt it. Director Marion McClinton provides us a simple painted floor and scrim (niftily designed by David Gallo and beautifully lit by Michael Wangen), puts some lawn chairs on the sides and then wisely gets out of the gifted cast’s way.
As Oya, Christiana Clark thrills. Lithe and muscular, leggy and gorgeous, Clark leaps about the stage, running circles around the other characters, energizing, driving the play with a compelling combination of desperate fear and exuberant defiance. This is a performance that will grow and build – and stay with you.
The other actors more than match her. As Elegba, Gavin Lawrence is sinuous, impish and knowing. Oya runs; Elegba tiptoes. His delight with fatherhood convinces utterly. As the ever-horny and ultra-intelligent Aunt Elegua, Greta Oglesby gives one of the best comic performances you are likely to see in many moons. She amazes. James A. Williams plays Ogun with lumbering charm. His passage out of stuttering into quiet dignity is spot on. As Shango, Ansa Akyea is by turns sexy and devious. He wears his Army uniform with assurance. Also effectively devious is John Catron as the Man From State. He also plays O Li Roon, with blustery power. Sonja Parks is heart-rendingly lovely as the dying Moja. Aimee K. Bryant and Celeste Jones display a nice combination of youthful innocence and cynicism in the small but important roles of Nia and Shun.
I’m short-shrifting this cast: they are, to a person, brilliant. McCraney’s pure talent overwhelms. I would not be surprised if In The Red And Brown Water sells out. Call the Guthrie BO (612-377-2224) and make your rezzies asap.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.