‘In the Red and Brown Water’ stirs the sexual and the spiritual

By Heather McAuliffe
ArtsPost staff writer

“In the Red and Brown Water,” now playing at The Studio Theatre, is a tragic glimpse into the realities facing a young woman in murky waters of the Mississippi Delta.  Brought to life by drum beats, rhythmic chanting and the occasional hip-hop chorus blasting from the DJ booth just off stage, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story captures the ecstasy and heartbreak of Oya, a talented runner whose early choices — including whether to take or turn down an athletic scholarship — will set her life course.

And when Oya turns to the men in her community for comfort and stability, she makes still more decisions that will impact her profoundly.  First is Shango, the swaggering stud of the neighborhood, who curls his fingers around Oya’s ear and makes her melt into his arms.  Strong, proud and irresponsible, Shango is the heat and passion that Oya craves.  When stuttering Ogun whimpers onto the stage, he seems like weak competition for Shango, though he is kind and gentle, and pledges to make her happy.

Oya’s fertility is emphasized through repeated references to bleeding, blood and menstruation, described as a wound that won’t heal, in a community where motherhood for most women is a defining accomplishment. McCraney’s sharp examination of womanhood in the projects illuminates the challenges that women face, and the importance of empowerment and opportunity for women and girls.  Oya is trapped by lack of opportunities, and as she says there’s “nowhere for me to go but here.”

The production is laced with Yoruba spiritual references, including the names of most of the characters.   The Yoruba religion, descended from communities in the Niger River delta in Africa, plays a large role in defining the personalities of the characters.  Known as orishas, each character in the play is named after a Yoruba deity and assumes many of their characteristics.  Shango, for example, is the most ostentatious representation of brute male sexuality.  He is also drawn to war, fighting and conflict.  He oozes sexual energy on the stage, and is played with all the necessary ego and bravado.  Aunt Elegua is named for the orisha most associated with protection.  She cares for Oya and guides. In Yoruba tradition, a small statue of Elegua is present in every home, and protects those living in that house.  Daily offerings must be made to ensure protection, and usually consist of whatever the occupants of the house are eating that day.  To the same extent, Aunt Elegua asks for a little bit of what Oya has.  First it’s her mother’s jewelry, and then, jokingly, a sexual experience with Shango.  The spirituality that the Yoruba traditions bring to the piece is reinforced by the use of rhythmic clapping, chanting and drums, which create an other-worldly feel to the whole production.

Though the play is set in the “distant present” in Louisiana and has some pop-culture references, the tone is far more classical than the music and lexicon used would imply.  The stage is in the theater-in-the-round style, further contributing to the thematic threads of Greek tragedy as the audience must endure Oya’s descent into dependence and emotional instability.