There’s a peculiar fascination I have with infamously misquoted lines. Passages like “Blood is thicker than water” and “Curiosity killed the cat” intrigue me in their societal context given that the original, unabridged passages each meant the opposite of what most people think of them to mean. And there are plenty more to go around. Most of you are probably familiar with Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line from No Exit, “Hell is other people.” The incorrect base assumption behind the quote’s meaning held by most people (formally myself included) is that the presence of other individuals is what torments each and every one of us. It’s not entirely true. The truth behind the passage’s creation stems from Sartre’s views on ontology. Hell in this sense is not the presence of others, but acknowledging that the presence of others forces you to be depicted as an object from another individual’s perspective. You’re still you, but you’re also you as the role you serve in the eyes of another. That’s what kills us. And yet, nearly all of us are compelled to seek out others as an act of self-fulfillment. We fear how others define us yet require those differing views to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, and who we are meant to be.
In The Red and Brown Water is the first play in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays which are heavily influenced by West African Yoruban mythology. Taking place in the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana, In The Red and Brown Water focuses on Oya, a young track star who passes up an athletic scholarship to care for her ailing mother. Soon thereafter Oya’s life begins focusing entirely on her relationships with the two men who desire her, and how she’ll fulfill the societal expectations placed upon her.
Co-Director Charles O. Anderson stated in his director’s note that he “…look[s] at [the play] as a ritual, an experience and an illuminating journey” and that is the immediate impression the show places on you. The prologue consists of a prolonged introduction to our protagonist, Oya (Christian Henley) as the rest of the cast sings, hums, dances, and gestures around her, offering ethereal comments on her and events that will befall her. The sequence instantly sets the ceremonial tone of the production, suggesting that this is less of a play and more of a myth told around a fire at night, aided more so by drawing upon Yoruban deities for character names. As the prologue ends we are quickly introduced to an unfamiliar style of dialogue that is found throughout each of The Brother/Sister Plays; character directions are spoken aloud. Thanks both to McCraney’s script and the talents of the cast, these spoken directions are utilized for comedic effect, dramatic intensity, and mystical mood setting. While simple in its premise, the wordplay alone is enough to create a distinctive voice for the trilogy, but when paired with the otherworldly, Greek chorus-like manner in which the story is told the plays have found the ever-elusive identity of being truly unique.
Water is at the center of this production. The set (designed by Elliot Gardner) is mostly bare, with the predominant feature onstage being Oya’s front porch far upstage and the webs of foliage hanging from above. But what really sets the tone for each scene are the lighting and projection designs (Chian-Ann Lu and Lacey Erb respectively). At times the projections and lights are used simply to suggest the location, quite often the front porch on a warm day, but when the need arises to bring out the ritualistic aspects of the production is when (forgive me for this pun) the lights truly shine. Sequences of rain utilize tiny ripples of light on the stage together with streaks on the upstage screen and appropriate mood lighting to give off the believable impression of rain. Though the effects are at their peak when they are subtle. Most notably (and continuing with the theme of water), there’s a repeated physical exchange between Oya and Shango (Keith Machekanyanga) in which the latter touches the former’s ear. Each time this occurs a soft water droplet is heard as a ripple of light expands away from the couple. It’s a seemingly simple yet striking effect that emphasizes why some artistic pieces are strongest when made for the theatre; the moment would not be as impactful if it were on film or otherwise.
The ensemble, both as individual actors and as a chorus, command respect. Given the intricacies behind Anderson and Robert Ramirez’s (co-director) staging of the fifteen-person cast the fact that they move as seamlessly as they do is nothing short of astounding. The larger scenes can overwhelm you as you think you’ve found the visual focus of the moment before characters are stepping, chanting, and crab-walking onto the stage from every conceivable direction. These sequences maintain the tone and West African roots from which the trilogy was inspired while simultaneously creating an otherworldly space that aids in isolating Oya (and the audience) from her surroundings, thus allowing us to further sympathize and connect with her feelings of loss and rejection in an increasingly unfamiliar world.4
The clear standout of the production is Henley as Oya, who rarely gets a moments rest from the highs and lows onstage. Throughout the production, Oya continually identifies herself through her relationships with others, be it caring her dying mother, an athletic asset for The Man from State, or as a romantic partner/lover towards Shango and Ogun. In each role Henley provides as her initial optimism slowly degrades over time with the realizations that she cannot be everything to everyone, and even then her loyalties may not always go rewarded. Machekanyanga’s performance as Shango was top notch as well. Prior to this production I’ve read In The Red and Brown Water but never saw it onstage; until now Shango always felt like the most shallow and callous character in the play. Machekanyanga changed that for me. True, Shango is still too sly for his own good, not always loyal, and drips with insincerity, but there’s an undeniable appeal in Machekanyanga performance that makes you want to believe every word her says. He’s every friend your parents told you to beware of but you’re still enticed by him anyway by just how charismatic he is. Furthermore, seeing him visually mature as his wardrobe and demeanor change over time emphasize that he’s developing into someone better than we knew him as initially. The other two actors who I wish to note are Nyles Washington and Rama Tchuente (Elegba and Aunt Elegua respectively). Elegba is Oya’s sly lifelong friend, and is by her side as he grows from a candy-stealing child to a sexually uncertain young man. Meanwhile, Aunt Elegua quickly becomes the predominant adult/parental figure in Oya’s life yet acts as wry and fun-loving as the younger characters thereby leaving Oya in need of a guiding presence. They are arguably the two figures closest to Oya, and as such create interesting parallels in their performances. Washington clearly makes the biggest changes as his character as Elegba shows distinct signs of maturation while still maintaining the vigorous, tricky kid inside of him. Meanwhile, Aunt Elegua is ever-supportive and knowledgeable, but her affability keeps her from protecting Oya. Though as a result, Tchuente is a magnet of delight in an otherwise unforgiving scenario. She commands attention and is enjoyable to be around, even when you realize she should be looking out for her goddaughter. Together, Washington and Tchuente are captivating in their energy, and clear indicators of the play’s tone. They are typically positive but when their mood dampens you feel it. The whole of the ensemble, large and small, did an excellent job, and certainly show off the hard work they’ve put into this production at any given moment.
This marks the second time I’ve seen one of The Brother/Sister Plays performed onstage, and both were unforgettable productions. Perhaps it’s McCraney’s unique style that demands our interest, or perhaps the plays draw the effort and creativity out of artists. Either way, In The Red and Brown Water is a shining example of the impact left by theatre and its intimacy. It definitely gets my recommendations for anyone interested in unique, contemporary theatre.
In The Red and Brown Water continues playing at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre on the University of Texas’ campus next week on Tuesday through Friday at 7:30pm and Sunday the 16th at 2pm.