Editors' pick

In the Red and Brown Water


Editorial Review

Theater review of 'In the Red and Brown Water'

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The combustible prose of Tarell Alvin McCraney and the heartbreaking countenance of Raushanah Simmons converge irresistibly in Studio Theatre's superb "In the Red and Brown Water," the devastating chronicle of a track star outrun by a hard life's assault on the soul.

The swanlike Simmons plays the promising runner, Oya, in McCraney's prickly fable, set in and around the boisterous projects of the fictional Louisiana town of San Pere. With her incandescent smile and wounded gaze, the actress proves to be an ideal conduit for the play's tragic arc, its portrait of a woman who recedes from her own blazing potential and ultimately fails to produce the least of what she expects of herself.

As with "The Brothers Size" -- the first of McCraney's three "Brother/Sister Plays" and presented at Studio two years ago -- "In the Red and Brown Water" takes place in what the playwright terms the "distant present." It's fitting that he chooses a temporal element entirely his own, for the landscape of his trilogy is the thrilling product of a unique brand of cultural harvesting.

Based loosely on "Yerma," Federico Garcia Lorca's 1934 Andalusian tragedy of a woman tortured by her failure to produce a child, "Red and Brown Water" also draws on a West African source -- Yoruba mythology -- as inspiration for the names and personalities of its characters. (Oya aptly is a goddess of wind and fertility.) McCraney embraces these influences in a signature format that underlines the idea that the world of the play is at once utterly authentic and a distant relation of our present: The characters all recite their own stage directions, as if they existed both in and outside of the narratives of their lives.

The director, Serge Seiden, and his set designer, Luciana Stecconi, mirroring somewhat the spartan visual layout of "The Brothers Size," stage "Red and Brown Water" on a bare circular platform in Studio's upstairs Milton Theatre. A shallow water channel rings the structure. In a recess of the theater, meanwhile, a character called the Egungun (Ricardo Frederick Evans) stands at a DJ's console, adding bits of aural embroidery -- a plaintive drumbeat between scenes, a virile blast of hip-hop for a smashing party scene.

This stark terrain feels electric in Seiden's superior production, although it's an energy we know is going to waste. Oya's territory, after all, is a bleak precinct of urban blight, an environment from which she has been given the means to escape, thanks to her athletic prowess. Much of the play's first half -- the slightly slower half, in fact -- is an account of the hope Oya engenders among her neighbors as well as in a university recruiter (Michael Harris) for her bright future in sports.

However, the presumption that she has plenty of time for her to put off college and hang around her mother (the splendidly feisty Denise Diggs) trips up Oya. She's quickly replaced on the track circuit, and dismissed as last year's phenom. Having failed to grab her chance, she retreats into the corrosive torpor of the housing project.

The 29-year-old McCraney, raised for part of his youth in Miami's Liberty City projects, depicts Oya transferring her intense desire to run to a more elemental pursuit: having a child, as pregnancy confers its own elevated status on the women of San Pere. "How somebody ain't put a baby inside you is beyond me," notes her on-again, off-again lover, Shango (Yaegel T. Welch), a smooth talker with bedroom eyes. Welch is slickly magnetic here, and the ways he conveys Shango's self-regard -- with a liquid laugh or a sultry reading of a stage direction -- help to turn his vulpine advances into a veritable comic subplot. But it's not strictly a laughing matter. Shango and Oya generate real heat.

Like Yerma, Oya becomes obsessed with her infertility. It's a metaphor for diminishment, her failure to thrive, even with the man she desires; she tries to live with another, simpler man who wants her, Ogun Size (the excellent Jahi A. Kearse) -- a character who figures more centrally in "The Brothers Size," which occurs later chronologically. In the end, though, Oya finds consolation only in a sacrifice of the flesh that was supposed to send her racing to glory.

Around Oya, McCraney assembles a bevy of memorable characters, all dressed with a wit-filled body consciousness by costumer designer Reggie Ray. As Oya's pitiless competitors for the menfolk, Shannon Alexandria Lillie Dorsey and Shaunte Corrina Tabb practically burst into sexual flame; Mark Hairston gives restless vigor to Elegba, a teenager eager to prove he's a man; and Deidra LaWan-Starnes turns the local busybody, Aunt Elegua, into a figure of both unanticipated insight and dance moves.

The strongest impressions, however, are left by Simmons, whose Oya is a creation to grieve over, and McCraney, who with this play gives lovers of cascades of beautiful words another reason to cheer.

By Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Serge Seiden. Lighting, Michael Giannitti; sound, Eric Shimelonis; dialect coach, Kim James Bey. About two hours.