In the Red and Brown Water
Also see Susan's review of Stick Fly
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has created a poetic, often mystifying, but always fascinating work with In the Red and Brown Water, now playing at Washington's Studio Theatre. The story at its base is straightforward, but the playwright embroiders it lavishly with elevated language, unearthly sound effects, and a self-consciously presentational style of performance; director Serge Seiden shows a comfortable command of both the material and the staging.
Studio hosted a New York production of McCraney's earlier play, The Brothers Size, in 2008. That play shares a few characters with the current one, but In the Red and Brown Water centers on a new one: Oya (Raushanah Simmons), a lithe high school track star determined to use her skill as a runner to escape the stifling existence in her Louisiana housing project.
As the title imagery might suggest, blood in its many forms becomes a central image of the play. Specifically, blood is the metaphorical tie between Oya and her ailing mother (Denise Diggs), and the element that connects the pregnant women referenced throughout the drama; the primal force that draws Oya both to sleek, smooth-talking Shango (Yaegel T. Welch) and solid, responsible Ogun (Jahi A. Kearse); and part of the dream described by the young trickster Elegba (Mark Hairston).
McCraney has written the work in a formal, somewhat reserved style: for example, the actors speak their own stage directions (the slippery, not-what-he-seems-to-be Elegba is described in terms referring to the phases of the moon) and move in stylized patterns around Luciana Stecconi's stark circular platform surrounded by water. The effect suggests the roots of theater in ancient religious ceremony.
Simmons has to carry the play on her shoulders, and she succeeds admirably in embodying Oya's shifting moods, from steely determination to despair. The other standouts are Deidra LaWan Starnes, who steals attention in her scenes as Oya's earthy, full-figured Aunt Elegua, and Hairston, who ably conveys the childlike attributes of Elegba: he misbehaves, but acts without malice and never quite understands what he's done wrong.