Tarell Alvin McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water, making its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company, is Part One in a collaboration among three of the area's most respected theaters. Part Two, The Brothers Size, is playing at the Magic Theatre. And Part Three, Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, wraps things up at ACT from Oct. 29 to Nov. 21. 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, brought to the Americas by the transatlantic slave trade. 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. The ending isnt perfect, 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. 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. We can't think of a better reason to get your ass across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Oct. 10, 2010