'Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet': A fitting end to dynamic cycle

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; C01

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 like 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. Through Feb. 13 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company