Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Ambitious The Brother/Sister Plays Trilogy Begins
Tarell Alvin McCraney, a talented 28-year-old American playwright, is out of the box with an ambitious trilogy of classically styled plays with the overall title of The Brother/Sister Plays. These plays are being produced for the first time in rotating repertory at the McCarter Theatre. The trilogy is being performed in two parts. Part 1: In the Red and Brown Water has officially opened and is being evaluated here. Part 2: The Brothers Size, along with Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, is now in previews.
McCraney describes In the Red and Brown Water as a fast and loose play on Spanish Yerma and African (Yoruban) Oya/Oba. The central situation of a young woman devastated and sent over the edge by her inability to conceive seems to be based on the Lorca's Yerma. Other stories told here and throughout the trilogy are based Yoruban tales. The actors, who are in a kind of storytelling circle as Water begins, not only play their roles, but also narrate their actions and those of their fellow actors. Chronologically, Water is the first play of the trilogy, set in a housing project in the mythical city of San Pere in the Louisiana Delta.
The sweet-natured Oya, a high school senior and phenomenal runner, is being recruited to run track by the State University when her mother, Mama Moja, dies. The script describes Mama Moja's death poetically ("Oya sees her mother walking a path and tries to follow her, asking, "Where you going?." Her mother replies, " ... This between me and the Lord. Gone back. You can't follow ... Gone head to run your race.").
Not able to gather herself together for a time after her mother's death, Oya loses her opportunity to go to State. She then allows the sensual, sexually predatory Shango to move in with her. Over time, their relationship deteriorates. Shango leaves Oya and joins the Army. Enter Ogun Size. He is a shy and diffident auto mechanic. He overcomes his stutter as he summons the courage to propose to her. The grateful, lonely Oya goes to live with him. End of act one.
In due time, Shango returns to San Pere. Oya is bored with the stolid Ogun and deeply unhappy about not having been able to conceive a child. Longing for the sensuality of Shango, Oya ends her relationship with Ogun, only to be rejected by the newly responsible Shango. He is now with Shun, whose child he has fathered. Oya cuts off the ear which Shango had always sensually caressed. She thrusts the bloody organ into his hand. This classically tragic and sensual storyline while essentially predictable is told in an interesting, idiosyncratic manner.
McCraney depicts his large cast of characters (several of the nine actors either double or triple) with warmth and humor. His words can be funny and vulgar as well as intense and sensual. McCraney's writing is expansive and has a generosity of spirit. Yet, both his crafting of Water in the tragic, classic style of Lorca and his lack of specificity as to his contemporary Louisiana setting are not without pitfalls. Viewing the otherwise engaging The Brothers Size at the NYSF Public Theatre, I was confused as to whether the play was set in Africa or the United States. There is an unmistakable rural feel to Water. As a result, I was jolted when a character spoke of their "housing project." Nothing in the script conveys any feeling of Water's grim setting. Even though the characters are poor and have little in the way of opportunity, there is a bucolic quality in the writing, production and African storytelling style that is incompatible with a setting of an urban housing project. Furthermore, all of the characters have Yoruban (or, at least, African) names. At the end of the day, these discomforts do not seriously diminish River.
However, the severed ear is a more substantial misstep. Perhaps we should be grateful that Oya did not fatally stab Shango (at first, it appears that she has). I would take an educated guess that in academic circles, McCraney has been highly lauded for his adherence to classic tragedy. However, I found modern day Oya's self-mutilation to be insane and indulgent. It is a bridge too far. The adherence to his model is understandable in a student playwright, but with this overly literal, inappropriate nod to classic tragedy, McCraney does a disservice to himself.
The set design by James Schuette features a totally open stage with the gleaming rear and side stage walls totally exposed to the audience. Abetted by the lighting of Jane Cox, this set provides an inviting space for the open, capacious staging by Tina Landau which vibrantly amplifies the warmth, vitality and generosity of the writing. Landau adroitly puts the theatre's aisles to effective use in her staging.
The entire cast has been molded into a most engaging ensemble. Kianne Muschett begins by capturing our hearts as the engaging and loveable young Oya. As her Oya matures, Muschett portrays her thwarted sensuality in a subtle, non-histrionic manner. Heather Alicia Simms is warm and feisty as Oya's mother, and hostile and feisty as Shun, the mother of Shango's child. Kimberly Hebert Gregory portrays Ogun's Aunt Elegua with a ripe, mature and humorous sexuality. Sharply etched portraits are contributed by Samuel Ray Gates as the sensual Shango, Marc Damon Johnson as the sad and gentle Ogun, and Alano Miller as 16-year-old Elegba, a troubled youngster who grows into maturity and finds his sexuality.
McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann is to be commended for Tina Landau's splendid production of the vibrant In the Red and Brown Water and the introduction of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney to New Jersey audiences .The Brother/Sister Plays Part 1: In the Red and Brown Water continues performances in repertory with Part 2. The Brothers Size and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet (see McCarter website for schedule of performances) through June 21, 2009 McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online at www.mccarter.org.
The Brother/Sister Plays Part 1: In the Red and Brown Water by
Tarell Alvin McCraney; directed by Tina Landau