It’s always a bit disconcerting for a white man like myself to write about a new play written by an African-American. The problem isn’t the minefields of political correctness through which one must tiptoe, or the opinion of some that white people shouldn't be commenting on anything having to do with the African-American experience. No, the biggest issue is a nagging feeling that I just don’t get it—that at some fundamental level I don’t understand who the characters are, why they do what they do, or why they don’t do something else. (I recognize this admission may lend some currency to the white-guys-should-shut-up crowd, but I can't help myself. It's a white-guy thing.)
Take In the Red and Brown Water , by up-and-coming playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, which is being presented in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio by Pillsbury House Theater. It’s the first play of a trilogy called The Brothers/Sisters Plays, and it comes to town having already garnered heaps of praise from runs in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. In theater circles, Yale-educated McCraney is being talked about as a literary heir to August Wilson, not only because his plays have some similarities to Wilson's, but because he was Wilson’s personal assistant at Yale during the development of Wilson’s last play, Radio Golf . It's obvious McCraney learned a few tricks from the master, but there's no shame in that. As they say: If you're going to steal, steal from the best.
After the heist, though, what's left? (Warning: typical white-guy analysis ahead.)
McCraney's play involves a young woman, Oya (played by Christiana Clark), who is a high school track star and, at the beginning of the play, is offered a college track scholarship. She turns the offer down to care for her ailing mother, figuring she’ll have other offers down the road. But the offers never come. Instead, her mother dies, Oya gets trapped in the aimless poverty of a Louisiana slum, and ends up torn between the love of two men—Shango, the bad boy (Ansa Akyea), and Ogun (James Williams) the good guy. Then she's pretty much ripped apart by her inability to conceive a child.
All of this is done perfectly well. The acting is very good, there is plenty of humor to balance the pathos, and simmering beneath it all is a not altogether unappealing feeling of impending doom. (Spend some time looking at the moon hanging in the background and you will see that the shadows and craters look like a face screaming in agony, trying to claw its way out.)
As I watched this play, though, my white-guy brain kept blurting such question as: Why does Oya give up on her track dream so easily? Why doesn’t she go to community college or something? Couldn't she take out some student loans, build up her track resumé, and try for another scholarship? Or learn a trade? Why is she attracted to a loser like Shango? Why is sex the only thing these characters think about? Why is Oya’s friend Elegba (Gavin Lawrence) so damn happy when, at the age of 16, he gets a girl pregnant? Why is having a baby the end-all and be-all for everyone? And why is not being able to have a baby such a big (and ultimately self-destructive) tragedy for Oya?
My own theory about how my white-guy brain processed this play goes something like this: I’ve never experienced grinding poverty, the death of two parents, a complete loss of hope, or anything else that plagues these characters’ lives, so I have no idea what they’re thinking and why. Furthermore, my own personal understanding of the African-American experience has been shaped almost entirely by August Wilson plays and a couple of seasons of The Wire . Which is to say, when it comes to comprehending the black experience in America, to say nothing of the female experience, I know practically nothing.
But I do know plays. And I know how to Google information. Which is why I can tell you with some confidence that if you're white like me, doing a little research before you see In the Red and Brown Water will go a long way toward appreciating and understanding why McCraney’s work is deeper than it seems on the surface. It still won’t explain why Oya ends up in the mess she does, but it will explain a quite a few important aspects of the play you might otherwise miss.
For instance, nothing in the program will tell you this, but In the Red and Brown Water draws from two important sources. One source is Yerma , Federico Garcia Lorca's 1934 play about a woman tortured by her inability to bear a child. The other is that the characters are named after gods in the myths and stories of a religion called Yoruba, which is practiced in southern Nigeria. Oya is the goddess of transformation and change, as well as goddess of the wind—specifically, the wind in the form of tornadoes and hurricanes. The studly Shango is the god of virility and fertility. Elegbra is the impish little devil or trickster of Yoruba folklore. And so it goes. Most of the other character’s names and attributes are lifted right out of Yoruba 101 as well.
Literarily inclined minds like mine find these sorts of connections cool and, well, appealingly literary. Ånd there’s more. Evidently, Yoruba is a water-based religion based on the belief that every person has a destiny, that one’s purpose in life is to pursue that destiny, and that the human spirit evolves through reincarnation. As in Hinduism and Bhuddism, the whole point of Yoruba life is to improve one’s spirit so that it may ascend the spiritual ladder into the next, presumably better life.
All of which is very interesting, because in shaping his characters after gods, McCraney has borrowed one of August Wilson's favorite tricks—namely, grounding the action in myth and metaphor. Once you know the Yoruba connection, the characters feel deeper than they otherwise are, and the play feels as if it has more gravitas. Suddenly it's not just the story of a girl who has no idea what she’s doing with her life; it's the story of a myth/metaphor that isn't doing what it's supposed to, of young people so cut off from their cultural heritage that they don't know how to get by in this world. If the Yorunda religion is all about pursuing one's destiny and improving one's character, Oya has screwed it up royally. By running away from her destiny, she ends up being sucked into a whirlpool of despair. Which makes the play a cautionary tale—a parable about the pitfalls of denying one's true self. But unless you know that Oya represents a goddess of change who is unable to change anything, least of all herself—well, then she’s just a clueless girl who makes a lot of bad choices.
There’s probably an entire dissertation in there somewhere, which is generally a good sign in a literary work—but I’ll leave it to some enterprising graduate student to track down all the ways in which these characters are culturally and spiritually adrift (that water is murky for a reason). To the rest of you, I will say that despite my white-guy over-analysis, it is possible to thoroughly enjoy McCraney's play even without knowing anything about the cultural foundation upon which it is built. (Though if you're read this far, you won't have that problem.)
Greta Oglesby is particularly entertaining as the sassy Aunt Elegua (the capricious gatekeeper of fate/justice and good/evil in your Yoruba handbook) and Gavin Lawrence is equally entertaining as the devil/trickster Elegba. For drama geeks, McCraney also employs some novel gimmicks—such as having the characters occasionally speak their stage directions out loud—that are worth discussing. The stage-speaking isn't as distracting as you might expect, but whether it adds enough to the play to justify its use is open to debate.
I've gone on long enough. Whether McCraney's characters perplex you or not, the bottom line is that In the Red and Brown Water is definitely a play worth seeing and discussing. At length. Brush up on your Yoruba and take the plunge.
In the Red and Brown Water continues at The Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through June 5, guthrietheater.org.