In the Red and Brown Water: Theater Review
An acclaimed young playwright explores elemental emotions amidst a housing project in the Louisiana bayou.
Acclaimed young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has had his trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays (of which In the Red and Brown Water is the second) produced around the world, including the Young Vic in London, The Public Theater in New York, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and the McCarter Theater in Princeton, although this local premiere is the first installment to play in Los Angeles.
McCraney displays an affinity for the lyrical deployment of elemental emotions in this story set in the “distant present” of a housing project in San Pere, Louisiana. Oya (Diarra Kilpatrick), a high school track star who foregoes an athletic scholarship to the state college to care for her dying mother, Mama Mojo (Peggy A. Blow), discovers all her options foreclosed, even motherhood. Easy prey for womanizer Shango (Gilbert Glenn Brown), Oya gradually grows increasingly shunned by the busybodies of her small society and more desperately isolated by her inability to grow into what she can feel to be a meaningful existence.
The characters all derive their names from the orishas of Yoruba mythology, spirit-gods of the elements of life, and there are discernible traces of African story-myths as well as obvious parallels to Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma. The lively local subculture of project life is idiomatically expressed through a variety of vivid types, some skirting toward familiar racial caricature, though always done with knowing and empathetic panache and deliberately underscored by the recurring device of having characters announce their stage directions before performing them, an alienation effect that contrarily draws the audience delightedly into the conspiracy of their intentions.
Director Shirley Jo Finney is expert at animating complex ensembles in small spaces like the Fountain, and her use of movement and attention to complex effects from simple interactions serves the text uncommonly well. Every player scores a memorable impression, above all the luminous lead Kilpatrick, who can inhabit a simple soul yet express her intensely complicated inner torment. Though this show hasn’t quite the grain and depth of Finney’s past productions of major works like Stick Fly, YellowMan or Emmett Till, the director indisputably remains at the top of her game.
Venue: The Fountain Theatre (through Dec. 16)
Cast: Diarra Kilpatrick, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Theodore Perkins, Peggy A. Blow, Iona Morris, Dorian Christian Baucum, Maya Lynne Robinson, Simone Missick, Stephen Marshall, Justin Chu Cary
Director: Shirley Jo Finney
Playwright: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Set Designer: Frederica Nascimento
Lighting Designer: Jose’ Lopez
Costume Designer: Naila Aladdin Sanders
Sound Designer: Peter Bayne