Editors' pick

Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet

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Editorial Review

'Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet' tops off bayou trilogy

By Peter Marks
Monday, January 10, 2011

With "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney completes the last leg of an irresistible bayou trilogy. In "The Brothers Size," he explored the magnetic pull of sibling connectivity. For "In the Red and Brown Water," he traced the tragic fallout of unrealized promise. And now, via "Marcus," he tackles the enigmatic foundations of sexual identity.

Like the earlier plays, "Marcus" takes place in the fictional Louisiana town of San Pere, in an era he whimsically labels the "distant present." As was the case with both "Size" and "Water," "Marcus" is expertly staged at Studio Theatre, this time with a potent eight-member ensemble shepherded by director Timothy Douglas.

The piece, in which 16-year-old Marcus Eshu (an appealing J. Mal McCree) begins to experiment with what it means to be "sweet" - a euphemism for gay - has a far sunnier spirit than the earlier works, even though in this one the rain clouds of a massive storm are gathering over the town. Any rumbling of recent Louisiana meteorology, of course, puts an audience in mind of the big one that inundated that region six years ago.

But the disturbances that preoccupy "Marcus" have more to do with the complications triggered by the young man's ever more confident embrace of his own desires. As the title suggests, the play treats Marcus's sexuality not so much as a scandal but as a mystery waiting to be unlocked: Marcus's ambiguous dreams about a man in white spark endless speculation in a town where superstitions are taken seriously. In his waking life, though, he's less and less ambivalent. Long the romantic target of one of his best friends, Osha (Rachael Holmes), Marcus is aroused instead by the shady Shua (Lance Coadie Williams), a burly visitor from the North who gets his satisfactions on the down-low.

One of the "secrets" in "Marcus" has to do with a homosexual undercurrent that may run in the teenager's family. Marcus's late father Elegba was a prominent character in "The Brothers Size," a slippery ex-con who insinuated himself into the life of the more impressionable brother, Oshoosi Size. Here, McCraney suggests a clearer rationale for the bond between the unseen Elegba and Oshoosi, one that posits Marcus indelibly as his father's son, and draws the works more fully into an integrated cycle.

It's McCraney's stylistic signature, more than the play's thematic thrust, that gives "Marcus" its distinctiveness. Those who've seen "Size" or "Water" will be familiar with his flourishes: characters with names out of West African mythology who not only speak their lines but their stage directions as well. While the devices do draw attention to themselves - we are commanded here to feel the presence of a writer - they come by now to seem characteristics of San Pere, the way a porch or mountain might in the terrain of another play. (Reflecting the pattern of the entire "Brother/Sister" trilogy, the set, by Daniel Conway, is practically bare, with only a moody sky as backdrop and translucent glass wall onto which raindrops sprinkle.)

Yet the self-narration is more effectively employed in "Marcus" than in the previous plays, particularly in its most intimate moments. When, for instance, Williams's Shua is seducing Marcus one evening, out among the elements somewhere, the actor's final remark to the technicians in the booth offers a clever meta-theatrical close to the scene.

"Marcus," too, easily proves to be the funniest of the plays, imbued as it is with a sense of a child with a growing acceptance of who he is and what he might achieve. The vivacious, take-no-prisoners women who surround him in San Pere - from his irate dynamo of a mother (the terrific Bianca LaVerne Jones) to a mouthy pal (the fab Shannon A.L. Dorsey) who lets him get away with absolutely nothing - accord the production abundant opportunities for nifty verbal clashes.

As Osha, the fetching Holmes convincingly conveys the emotional denial in which a young woman might envelop herself, and Stephanie Berry offers an endearing account of Aunt Elegua, who may be getting on but has relinquished not a jot of her spunk. Williams, Nickolas Vaughan and Montae Russell are excellent as the men who entice, taunt and advise the curious Marcus.

The coming-of-age of a young gay man may not be novel material these days, but "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet" has on its agenda a more important function: the propelling forward of a writer who doubtless has other theater trails to blaze. Let's eagerly await whatever scintillating cycle McCraney has yet to spin.

Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Set, Daniel Conway; lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Reggie Ray; sound, Erik Trester; dramaturgy, Adrien-Alice Hansel. About 2 hours.

Studio stages Tarell Alvin McCraney's 'Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet'

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Thursday, January 6, 2011

When the first piece in Tarell Alvin McCraney's mystical, Southern-steeped "Brother/Sister Plays" trilogy arrived at Studio Theatre in 2008, the then-20-something Yale grad student was so unknown that he managed to slip into a rehearsal of his play, "The Brothers Size," without creating so much as a stir.

Three years later, Studio is completing the last note of his trilogy, "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," a turbid drama set in the same Louisiana bayou community as "The Brothers Size" and its prologue, "In the Red and Brown Water."

And McCraney? He has emerged as one of the nation's most promising - and buzzed-about - playwrights, often compared to a young August Wilson. The "Brother/Sister" works have been staged in theaters across the country, and "Marcus" snagged the National Endowment for the Arts' Outstanding New American Play award.

According to "Marcus" director Timothy Douglas, McCraney's success can be attributed to his ability to channel "stories that happened to him and around him. He has managed to frame them in humanity's iconic influences: African culture, American culture, black American culture."

He adds: "His intelligence, his warmth, his soul connection jumps out of the plays. That, anyone can relate to."

Where "In the Red and Brown Water," staged at Studio last winter, followed a young woman teetering between pursuing her talent as a runner and bowing to familial pressures, "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," depicts a teenager who fends off questions about his sexuality from the tightly knit - some might call suffocating - community as he tries to get to the bottom of his troubling dreams. As with the other two "Brother/Sister" plays, threads of West African Yoruban culture are woven throughout.

" 'Sweet' is primarily a euphemism for someone who is gay," Douglas says, "and a lot of people think this is a play about someone coming to terms with his sexuality.

"Marcus has no issues with his own homosexuality; it's how that's perceived by others that he resists. He resists the label because he feels himself at 16 to be so much more."

For actor J. Mal McCree, who plays the title character, the secret of Marcus's "sweet" may have more to do with what's churning in the skies and in Marcus's head than in his heart: An unnamed, Katrina-like storm is barreling toward town.

"You find out everyone is affected by this dream I'm having, and I don't even know what the dream is," McCree says. "What is it about this dream? All these other people know." It is up to Marcus, however, to find out.

"With all young men and their journeys," McCree says, "you just have to allow them to go out and suspend themselves and learn on their own. You can tell me and give me all the rules, but at some point you have to let go and let me learn from experience."

That, both Douglas and McCree say, is where McCraney ties up his trilogy with verve.

"This is really a well-crafted young-man-coming-of-age journey," Douglas says. "It holds its own against 'David Copperfield' in terms of his search and what he comes to on the other side."