Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play, In the Red and Brown Water, opened at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio on May 6. It was like no other play that I’d seen before, in an intimate studio where wheelers sit in the front row, just a couple feet from the action. Red and Brown was co-produced by the Pillsbury House Theater, based in the Powderhorn and Central neighborhoods of Minneapolis.
The play is like a Greek tragedy and surrounds Oya (Christiana Clark), who refuses her destiny to go to college and run track with what we think is a noble decision to care for her dying mother, Mama Moja (Sonja Parks). When her second chance to go to college is denied, Oya spirals into depression.
Playwright McCraney uses music, dance and even stage direction to propel the action of the play. Director Marion McClinton opens the play with Mama Moja giving birth to Oya, as the full cast of 10 actors forms a birthing scene reminiscent of a Pilobolus dance move. We quickly learn that Oya is a gifted runner whose mother pushes her to compete.
We soon meet Elegba (Gavin Lawrence) and Aunt Elegua (Greta Oglesby) who both play their characters with joy and mischief as they guide Oya by showing examples and questioning her decisions.
The Man from State (John Catron), a University talent seeker, holds Oya’s destiny when he asks her to come to his school to run. But Oya asks The Man to wait for one year while she tends to her mother. By the time Oya is ready to leave for school, The Man has found a replacement, leaving Oya to live in her Louisiana projects, with Shango (Ansa Akyea) with whom she has sexual chemistry, then later, Ogun (James A. Williams) whose stuttering stops when he professes his love to Oya.
Oya visits three people to ask for help to change her fate but nobody can. Oya shows subtle signs of depression as she sits on her porch — simple lawn chairs line the back and sides of the stage. She eventually has a psychotic breakdown and presents Shango with the one thing that gave her pleasure, in the form of her flesh and blood.
Each of the 10 Equity actors kept our absolute attention as they gave some of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. You could hear a pin drop the entire two hours. Somehow, each actor is a solid standout: Just when you think one actor has topped the rest, another steals away the scene. The intimacy of the theater and our front-row seats, along with the talented actors’ performances, nearly put us in a trance. I’ve never known or met characters like these and it was a fresh explosion to my senses.
This play runs through June 5. The ASL and AD interpreted performances is 7:30 p.m. June 1, 7:30 p.m. Call about reduced ticket prices, at 612-377-2224, or TTY 612-377-6626. The websites are www.Guthrietheater.org or www.pillsburyhousetheatre.org
I will soon be visiting Pillsbury House Theater, so watch for that in an upcoming blog. Let me know what you think of this play, or tell me your thoughts on African mythology.