Entertainment » Theatre

The Brother/Sister Plays :: In the Red and Brown Water

by Kay Bourne
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 31, 2011
Miranda Craigwell in "In The Red and Brown Water"
Miranda Craigwell in "In The Red and Brown Water"   (Source:Steve Wollkind)

In the intense drama "In the Red and Brown Water," the speedy track star Oya has the opportunity to outpace her destiny; but when her Mama passes on, the young woman stumbles by hooking up with a trifling man.

Playing Oya is a newcomer to Boston theater, the tall, slender Miranda Craigwell who has a strikingly beautiful smile and a face alive with the emotions that tweak her spoken lines. She is riveting as Oya grows from the spirited teenager who runs for the sheer joy of streaking around the track into a woman facing an emotional mine field through which she has difficulties maneuvering.

(Left-to-right) Hampton Fluker, Johnnie McQuarley, James Milord and Chris Leon in "In The Red and Brown Water"  (Source:Steve Wollkind)

"In The Red and Brown Water" is the first play in the trilogy of engrossing plays that Tarell Alvin McCraney bundles together as "The Brother/Sister Plays." The other plays - "The Brothers Size" and "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet" - enter on Nov. 10, after which the three plays will be seen in repertory through December 3.

The complete opus, which has the grand scope of Greek tragedy told with the down and dirty intimacies of street life, looks at two generations of contemporary youth with great humor and profound empathy. Contemplative, yet action packed, McCraney’s writing is sometimes straightforward, sometimes poetic and continually thought provoking on many levels simultaneously. It will shake you emotionally.

Juanita Rodrigues and Miranda Craigwell in "In The Red and Brown Water"  (Source:Steve Wollkind)

The trilogy’s unifying character is a mischievous "gray boy," which for this community is parlance for a gay man.

This heart rending first play is insightfully directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, who most recently directed "1001" for Company One and Lydia Diamond’s "Harriet Jacobs" for the Underground Railroad Theater. Sandberg-Zakian makes the most of the thrust stage area in the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theater with imaginative staging that encourages intimacy for the audience with the characters’ triumphs and travails.

McCraney describes "Water" as "a fast and loose take on Spanish ’Yerma,’" referring to the dark drama by Garcia Lorca that tells the story of a childless woman living in rural Spain and her desperate desire to have a baby which leads her to commit a horrific crime.

The openly gay, African American playwright, himself in his 20s when he wrote the masterwork, grew up in Miami’s rough Liberty City, an enclave of five or six housing projects all facing inward. He has set the trilogy, beginning with "In the Red and Brown Water," in the similar milieu of the fictional San Pere, Louisiana, where a black community is situated near the bayou.

Miranda Craigwell and Chris Leon in "In The Red and Brown Water"  (Source:Steve Wollkind)

The Miami of his youth was a nexus of Caribbean and Latin American slave cultures that practiced religions born of the West African cosmos known as the world of Orishas. These gods from nature are cleverly personified in the characters of the play. Just as they were subtly integrated into the saints of the Roman Catholic faith by the slaves who were forced to practice Christianity.

When Oya (also the name of the Orisha of wind, tempests, and tornadoes) runs in an important meet, the entire community turns out to cheer her on. As her proud neighbors look on, a scout from the state university approaches her with the offer of a sports scholarship, Oya’s ticket to a better life. She hesitates, however, because her beloved mother is ill. Regretfully, she rejects the offer, thinking she can pick it up next year, but in the intervening months her life settles into the mores of the others in her community and into entanglements that produce a personal morass.

Mama Mojo (played with dignity and warmth by Michelle Dowd), kept seducers away from Oya but with her adored mother’s passing, Oya succumbs to the sexual advances of the macho womanizer Shango, portrayed by Chris Leon with swagger and oily charm.

Hamtpon Fluker (left) in "In The Red and Brown Water"  (Source:Steve Wollkind)

When Shango takes off for a stint in the Army, Oya takes refuge in the more nurturing arms of the stuttering, gentle, hard working Ogun Size, who has an auto repair business. Solidly portrayed by Johnnie McQuarley, Ogun is deeply in love with Oya, who unhappily for her, still burns for the captivating Shango and, more deeply, mourns that neither of these men has made her pregnant. Oya longs for a baby.

A childhood friend of Oya’s, Elegba, who has a passion for sweets, first appears as quite a small boy begging Mama Mojo for candy; later he appears as a ten year old pursued by the local white shopkeeper for stealing a candy bar. By 16, Elegba with his trousers at his hips seems the typical hip-hop teen bopping through life.

Yet he is the most complex character in the play, a person whose dreams from early childhood carry the community’s race memory of the Middle Passage, "I walk on the bottom on the floor of the waters and there’s these people," he tells Mama Mojo, "walk alongside of me but they all bones...." She senses he has seen the remains of Africans thrown overboard from the slave ships to ease the weight of the ship in a storm or if they were sick, but she doesn’t want to talk about it with the child.

Chris Leon in "In The Red and Brown Water"  (Source:Steve Wollkind)

His dreams also convey specific omens for individuals, in particular Oya, who in this dream bleeds in that same ocean where the bone people walk (a vision that gives rise to the title of the play).

Hampton Fluker gives the character exactly the right jokester surface with but a hint here and there of the emotional depth stewing beneath the mischievousness.

Lusty Aunt Elegua, played with great vigor and spice by Juanita A. Rodrigues, is ever at the ready to advise Oya, particularly as regards Shango: "Be fast in the feet and not in the ass," she warns.

Jerem Goodwin is good as both the patronizing Man From State and the shop keeper Elegba harasses, while Michelle Dowd also takes on a second role as one of the fast stepping neighborhood girls, along with the hilariously mean spirited Natalia Naman as Shun who takes delight in taunting Oya as a poor second in Shango’s affections and barren as well.

Hampton Fluker and Miranda Craigwell in "In The Red and Brown Water"  (Source:Steve Wollkind)

James Milord makes a powerful if brief appearance as the disc jockey Egungun (who in the Orisha cosmos demonstrates amoral behavior) by throwing an unexpected consideration into the story line.

Set Designer Erik Diaz has enhanced the feeling that everyone in this poor community is living in each other’s laps with a latticework backdrop of large boards widely spaced so you can see people standing behind observing the activity on stage. Also effective are the costumes from Sarah Nelson, the sound from Aaron Mack, and the lighting from David Roy. The production benefits from musicologist Dr.Clarice Laverne Thompson’s arrangements as when Mama Mojo’s passage to the next world is indicated by the singing of the spiritual "Ain’t Gonna Study War No More."

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s powerful immersive drama will linger in your mind long after you leave the theater and have you longing to see the next chapter in the lives of the people from San Pere.

"In The Red and Brown Water" continues through December 3, 2011 in the Plaza Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St. in Boston’s South End. For more info you can go on-line to the Company One website.

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