By Elizabeth Ward
ArtsPost staff writer
Photo courtesy Studio Theatre
The chorus cries, “She wasn’t crazy… just sad.”
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water” tells the story of Oya, a girl wrapped in promise and love. Yet through a series of missed chances and unexpected choices, she takes on an accessory role to the characters molding her life path.
The play is the second installment of McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy being showcased in sequence at Washington’s Studio Theatre in the intimate Milton Theater. The bold theater-in-the-round setting offers director Serge Seiden the chance to tell the story in an abstract form, breaking down the fourth wall and encouraging our identification and connection with the characters.
McCraney uses incredibly impressive language — a unique and inventive attitude with one foot in the harsh reality of life and the other in a magical dreamland. It is a poignant, refreshing narrative that uses rhythm and music as the interweaving fabric.
The characters, named for Yoruban deities, speak their actions aloud as almost self-narrative statements of purpose.
“Oya smiles,” Oya states to the audience. Then Oya gleams at her mother.
At first, the self-narrating stage directions are surprising but offer pertinent introductions for which the audience is thankful. But as the play unfolds, this self-direction provides a rhythmic, emotional weight — adding comedy and omniscient honesty to the all-feeling characters.
“In the Red and Brown Water” is storytelling in its most authentic form. The tone is revelatory in this melding of poetry, rap, tragedy and drama as it speaks directly to human connectivity and emotions. This pulls from contemporary African American culture, as well as Yoruban gathering traditions and fire circles, African spirituals and dance, the Greek choral dramas and Shakespearean rhythms. This sampling from old traditions is echoed in the live DJ music during scene changes, and includes new takes on recognizable songs.
“Gonna lay my burdens down, ain’t gonna study war no more” belts the A cappella soul choir, leading a loved character to a peaceful heaven, as told through a dream.
The dialogue’s content speaks to poverty and social class, as well as the few chances we have to make this life the best. Set in the slums of Louisiana, where no one seems to get a ticket out, the question arises: If we are never taught how to make our big life decisions, how are we to seize opportunities?
The show’s tragic heroine, Oya, played by the beautifully vulnerable Raushanah Simmons, is given her ticket but chooses to stay with her ill mother, only to be left grabbing at every form of security and acceptance she can, including motherhood.
She is accompanied by her neighbor, Elegba, played by Mark Hairston, who begins as the young boy running for candy and concludes as an enigmatic teenage father with homosexual tendencies. He is as ever-changing as the moon: “Lil’ Legba begins to walk away,” he says, “like the half-moon in the morning.”
This lunar role leaves Hairston unimpressionable and unimpressive as Elegba, but that may be due to the plot-filling, prophetic role Elegba serves — much like the moon.
Oya’s love interests play out in Ogun, the self-conscious admirer, and his counterpart, the disdainfully macho Shango. Ogun, played by Jahi A. Kearse, offers the most satisfying, sympathetic role of the show. Kearse brilliantly conveys an awkward, stuttering man who cannot help but love the broken girl who cannot love him in return.
Shango, performed by Yaegel T. Welch, is the quintessential “bad boy.” More than that, he represents the stereotypical African American macho male, marked by his foul language, racial slurs and questionable treatment toward Oya; Welch seems truly immersed in Shango’s vile skin. In this audience, where the audience greets Ogun’s entrances with empathy, Shango’s entrances are laughed off as comedy, the only comfortable response to such offensive virility.
Oya is torn between what she desires in Shango and what is good for her in Ogun. For Oya, Shango is “snuggling up to death” while Ogun is enduring love and promise of a family. Between these two extremes, she is left without. In the end, she leaves her mark in a horrifyingly gruesome and tragic act of love, as the chorus concludes, “She wasn’t crazy… just sad.”
More than anything, this story is a heartbreaking web of relationships — of those that make us smile, those we don’t love in return, and those we shouldn’t love for our own good. Oya gets tangled in this mesh, constantly leaving her on the floor gasping for life. In the end, it seems as if Oya can run forever, but she can’t seem to catch her breath through the life sprint.
The reasons that make many love the play may be the same reasons why others will hate it. It is vulgar and honest, classical and contemporary, and it speaks to class, poverty and the fight for purpose. The second act almost feels like an entirely different phase of the moon from the first, changing focus and de-emphasizing what you may have thought the show was about at the inception. And while it is a story about a woman, it speaks to men and women, addressing society’s ignorance and opening our eyes through impressive artistic structure.
“In the Red and Brown Water” is a show unlike any that you have seen before, composed of all of the things with which you are familiar. It is prodigious post-modernist sampling at its finest.
“In the Red and Brown Water” runs through Feb. 28 at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. For tickets, go to www.studiotheatre.org/tickets