"In the Red and Brown Water" is worth the hype

The play begins with a single, sharp intake of breath. That's only fitting, because the anticipation surrounding this thing has been enormous.

Tarell Alvin McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water, now making its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company, is Part One in a unique collaboration among three of the area's most respected theaters. Part Two, The Brothers Size, is playing at the Magic Theatre until Oct. 17. And Part Three, Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, wraps things up at ACT from Oct. 29 to Nov. 21.

The trilogy — known collectively as the Brother/Sister Plays — premiered last year in New York to ecstatic reviews. Ben Brantley, writing in The New York Times last November, said that McCraney's work elicits "the excited wonder that comes from witnessing something rare in the theater: a new, authentically original vision. It's what people must have felt during productions of the early works of Eugene O'Neill in the 1920s or of Sam Shepard in the 1960s." That's some scarifyingly high praise, especially for a playwright just a few years out of grad school and still a few months shy of his 30th birthday.

I always get a little uncomfortable when people start comparing a young artist to prolific playwrights whose work still speaks across decades. In this case, though, the praise might just be deserved.

In the Red and Brown Water takes place in a housing project in San Pere, a fictional town in the Louisiana bayou. The time is "the distant present." The characters share names with West African gods from the Yoruba tradition, a tradition brought to the Americas by the transatlantic slave trade, melding with other New World devotional practices to become Santería in Cuba and Voudoun in Haiti. McCraney's characters are contemporary in look and dress and speech, but their behavior is determined in part by deep reserves of unacknowledged mythology and unrecorded history.

The play tells the story of Oya (Lakisha May), a teenager who hopes that her track-and-field prowess will take her far away from the projects. After losing her mother, Moja (Nicol Foster), she's left alone to grapple with the competing attentions of a musclebound Army recruit (Isaiah Johnson) and a nice-guy mechanic (Ryan Vincent Anderson). Along the way, she receives a lot of sassy advice from her pal Elegba (Jared McNeill) and her Aunt Elegua (Dawn L. Troupe), while the underhanded Shun (Jalene Goodwin) does her best to keep the Army recruit to herself.

The term "mythopoetic" gets thrown around a lot in American theater these days (blame Tony Kushner if you must), but here the term actually applies. McCraney invests his straightforward story with reverberations from a turbulent cultural past. He writes with almost unnerving confidence. He shifts easily between thrilling music sequences and the kind of vibrant, hilarious, pointed dialogue few playwrights can manage. And all the while, his characters read off their stage directions between speeches. That gimmick would be painful in the wrong hands, but here it seems to underline the fact that this story is, at some level, both story and ritual, steeped in myth, echoing all of the unwritten stories that preceded it. The effect is not alienating, as you might imagine. It's oddly transporting.

I have some quibbles with McCraney's ending, at least in terms of plot. The heroine's final action feels somehow imposed upon her by the playwright rather than emerging from her own needs or desires. Yet as staged by Ryan Rilette on York Kennedy's sparse, elegant set, the conclusion works in spite of itself. With all of the characters standing in a circle around Oya, singing one of the play's many haunting tunes, it's tough to resist a genuine case of the chills.

This is easily the most solid cast I've seen on a Bay Area stage all year. Best of all is McNeill, who imparts an infectious, lovable, manic energy to the trickster Elegba. Troupe's Aunt Elegua is memorably sassy, and May's Oya grounds the whole production with a performance notable for its maturity in a young actress. But singling out individuals somewhat negates the collective achievement of this remarkable ensemble: All of the performers radiate that particular kind of joy you only see when actors know that they're working with fantastic material.

Whoever came up with the idea for three local companies to collaborate on McCraney's trilogy is some kind of genius. I don't know why Bay Area theaters don't do this sort of thing more often. I, for one, had never been to Marin Theatre Company before this, since Mill Valley isn't exactly in my neck of the woods. In retrospect, that seems ridiculous, especially since it took me less than half an hour, in weeknight traffic, to drive from my place in the Castro to the theater's parking lot.

I'm guessing that plenty of Magic and ACT fans found themselves, like me, discovering this performance space for the first time. That kind of cross-pollination — with artists and audiences landing in unfamiliar places as they watch a trilogy unfold — is nearly as exciting as the work itself.

If you're the kind of city resident who prefers to be entertained within city bounds, it might just be time to make an exception. I can't think of a better reason to get your ass across the Golden Gate Bridge.

 
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