Partially inspired by Yerma, Federico Garcia Lorca’s masterwork about a woman yearning in vain for fertility, Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s In the Red and Brown Water explores similar themes, only steeped in mythology and legends with West African influence.
At the center of the story is Oya, a promising track star, played passionately by the oh so beautiful Raushanah Simmons– and I don’t meant delicate, garden variety, will break if you touch her, beauty, but strong willed and tough while luminous, with time will stand still if you look at her long enough, beauty. Simmons relays the deep anguish of a woman surrounded by evidence that the cycle of life is the easiest, most natural occurrence imaginable – except, apparently for her. After her dreams of being a track star slip away, Oya fixates on maternity in hopes that child bearing will ease her disquietude and give her life purpose and meaning. Her performance shows how a bucketload of emotional turmoil can be relayed with a cool gaze and detached demeanor, without a grimace or wringing of hands. Oya descends from the stellar heights of physical achievement to the depths of self mutilation in her unrequited longing.
The other actors, a virtual “who’s who” of stars from throughout the metro area, absolutely shine here. Helen Hayes winner Dierdra LaWan Starnes ambles along as the well endowed Aunt Elegua whose nose is in everybody’s business and knows how to shake a good foot to make her point. Similarly, Denise Diggs is rock solid in her portrayal of Mama Moja, playing her with integrity and care. Proving there are no small parts, the two other supporting actresses, Shannon Alexandria Lillie Dorsey and Shaunte Corrina Tabb, have a Greek chorus-like role. Both exude an irrepressible energy and connection with their characters, enlivening their scenes, commenting on the events, having their say loudly at times, and adding a physical and playful flair throughout.
The women are balanced by a trio of fine, and I mean Fine actors—Yaegel T. Welch, who was absolutely mesmerizing in Studio’s My Children! My Africa! plays the hell out of Shango with cunning, thuggish sexual tension and energy that would leave a whole bevy of ladies fanning in his wake. Jahi A. Kearse, who was a force of nature as Sammy Davis Jr. at MetroStage, portrays his dependable character Ogun with a smooth gliding grace and tender caring. Mark Hairston plays the young upstart Elegba as a sort of trickster who pops in and out of scenes, offering consolation and camaraderie at first, then later evolves into his own, complete with a gorgeous brilliant white suit (costumes designed by the consistently wonderful Reggie Ray). Sound design (Eric Shimelonis) plays an important role in relaying the emotional fortitude of the play, and Ricardo Frederick Evans as DJ bounces in the scenes as needed.
The spirit moves throughout the telling of this story. From the opening tableau when all the actors respond to the drumbeat and gather as if calling the ancestors, to the ending group collective in the cleansing spray of water, the cast seems to be connected to an unmistakable force. The text is deeply rooted in a lyrical language that adds to the crescendo of the emotional and sexual tension, and director Serge Seiden has earned his keep in maintaining its steady ebb and flow. As in McCraney’s earlier work, The Brothers Size, also seen at Studio , the actors often speak about their characters in the third person, providing commentary and asides about the entrances and exits, the delivery of the lines and reactions of the characters. This distance adds an innovative dimension as the performers relay additional bits about their characters in real time. The set design by Luciana Stecconi is a simple circle with an outer edge rim of water. Water plays an integral role in the story, and the characters have to step into and out of the space deliberately and with intention.
Lorca’s Yerma tale is not the easiest story to relay without coming across as one-note whining. McCraney is up to the task relating the multiple layers of emotional depth and longing in caressingly beautiful language. Part of McCraney’s brilliance is his utter lack of pretension while reaching for unspeakable heights. Each segment, each scene, each interchange and beat feels honest, to the point, and packed full of integrity.
The program notes that “In the Red and Brown Water looks deeply at the choices we make and their ramifications.” One would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate truism, a more gifted writer, or a more remarkable production to embody the heart of that observation any time soon.
In the Red and Brown Water
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Serge Seiden
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
In the Red and Brown Water plays thru Mar 7, 2010.
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IN THE RED AND BROWN WATER