This fall, three Bay Area theater companies have joined forces to present Tarell Alvin McCraney's Louisiana-bayou-based trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays. The first production, In the Red and Brown Water, has just opened at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley and runs through October 3, 2010. The trilogy's second installment, The Brothers Size, is in previews now and opens on September 21 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, while part three, Marcus: Or the Secret of Sweet, comes to A.C.T. at the end of October.
Expertly directed by Ryan Rilette and beautifully acted by a fine company of players, the Marin Theatre Company production will feel like a promising start for those who've decided to catch all three parts of the trilogy. The actors, who take their names and much of their behavior from Yoruban spirits, animate the theater's almost empty stage with their lithe movements and a cappella voices. The story has an almost mythical quality to it.
Unfortunately, McCraney's tragedy becomes too infatuated with its contrived despair, and he ends up hampering his actors with numerous stylistic devices -- they must read their own stage directions to the audience while endlessly repeating signature phrases for dramatic effect.
At first, this kind of works since the actors are supposed to be portraying spirits as well as flesh-and-blood mortals -- asides and repetitions feel like confidences when they come out of the mouths of minor deities. But by the second act the gimmicks are wearying, in no small part because they feel so gratuitous when woven into the story of Oya, a promising young woman who can't seem to catch a break. Despite the sharpening of the play's focus -- Oya is transformed from a wind-born spirit to a run-of-the-mill victim -- McCraney hews stubbornly to his formula. And we're ready to move on before he is.
Photo: Kevin Berne
In the first act, none of this matters much because McCraney's characters are just so damned interesting, their dialog more like poetry than exposition. I didn't want it to end. We meet Oya (Lakisha May), a track star who's been offered a scholarship to the local state college, which means a ticket out of her housing-project life in San Pere. There's Elegba (Jared McNeill), a young, sweet and impossibly immature pest of a boy, who tells Oya's Mama Moja (Nicol Foster) of a dream he's had about her daughter. As it turns out, his vision, which gives the play its name, is really a prophecy that seals the poor girl's fate.
Dark portents aside, there are also a lot of laughs in the first act, many provoked by Aunt Elegua (Dawn L. Troupe), which temper the play's what-is-the-meaning-of-life morbidity. In quick succession, Oya loses her chance at a scholarship because of her sense of duty to her ailing mother. Then her lover, Shango (Isaiah Johnson), a ripped hunk who can make Oya melt simply by caressing her ear, chooses the Army as his way out of the bayou. It's one thing after another, but by the end of the first act, Oya has made peace with this cascade of unfortunate circumstances, thanks mostly to the attentions of Ogun (Ryan Vincent Anderson), a simpleton mechanic, whose stutter is cured by Oya's affection -- love, it turns out, is too strong a word.
Photo: Kevin Berne
There's no way, we think, this can last, and so it doesn't. I can live with the absence of redemption for Oya -- this is, after all, a tragedy. What I can't stomach are the easy snares McCraney uses to trap his prey. In fairness to McCraney, literature is filled with tales of free spirits who are brought to earth by the indignities of life, so he's working with a reliable template here. But the descent into soap opera, which the play's ending only confirms, was disappointing.
In the Red & Brown Water runs through October 3, 2010 at the Marin Theatre Company. For tickets and information, visit marintheatre.org.