So here we are, at the end of Tarell Alvin McCraney's trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays. It all began back in September at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley with In the Red and Brown Water, continued through the middle of October at Magic Theatre in San Francisco with The Brothers Size and now finishes up at A.C.T. with Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, which runs through November 21, 2010. Regardless of the unevenness of McCraney's project, you have to applaud these three theater companies for pulling off a rare collaboration.
If part one was a well-executed, if somewhat indulgent, exercise and part two was marked by its ferocious beauty and irresistible physicality, part three is just another play with issues -- from forced acting, to a story that is frequently undermined by the words McCraney puts in his actor's mouths. Despite some Tyler Perry-quality laughs and a few 'pay attention: you're-watching-important-theater' moments, Marcus holds no secret and its inconclusive ending is anything but sweet. We're promised a coming-of-age story about a young, gay, African American man, but all we get is a storm.
Literally. Marcus, you see, is set in the days just before Hurricane Katrina, a conveniently melodramatic hook to hang Marcus's rain-soaked dreams on. When we meet Marcus Eshu (Richard Prioleau), he's having one of those dreams, which has been infiltrated by the ghost of Oshoosi Size (it's a treat to see Tobie L. Windham reprising the character he played at the Magic; the consistency works). The dream is a bad one from Marcus's perspective because he doesn't understand it. From our perspective, it is a dream of redemption and forgiveness from a younger brother, Oshoosi, to his elder, Ogun (played here, unconvincingly, I'm afraid, by Gregory Wallace). Marcus's dream is truly a gift, but for some reason it strikes everyone who hears about it as really bad news.
Marcus (Richard Prioleau) and Shaunta Iyun (Omozé Idehenre)
As it turns out, Marcus has many dreams, some which speak to his struggle with his sexuality. Being young, gay, and black in the rural south, we're told, carries some serious baggage (one of the characters refers to it as "black-mo-phobia"), making the problems associated with being -- oh, I don't know -- young, gay, and white in San Francisco a cakewalk by comparison. I'm neither, so am hardly in a position to comment on McCraney's assertion or his unstated implication, but what I can do is point out the holes in his case.
Since the premise of the play is that Marcus is unsure of his sexuality, he bounces from character to character and practically begs each one to look him straight in the eye and tell him if his father was "sweet," Louisiana code for gay. Ultimately, he wants to know whether he's just a chip off the old block, but he needs others to give voice to what he cannot. I'll take McCraney at his word that people in the fictional town of San Pere would not be able to give the kid a straight answer, so to speak, but doesn't the fact that Marcus is so obsessed by the question suggest at least a measure of self-awareness on his part? Maybe Prioleau's performance is the problem, maybe it's the book, but I did not believe Marcus's alleged confusion for a second.
Marcus (Richard Prioleau), Shaunta Iyun (Omozé Idehenre), and Osha (Shinelle Azoroh)
Worse is the silly cat-and-mouse game McCraney forces Marcus to play with his childhood sweetheart, Osha (performed with easy confidence by Shinelle Azoroh) and their mutual best friend, Shaunta Iyun (Omozé Idehenre gives the play some much-needed glue -- she is flat-out wonderful). At one point, Osha expresses shock when she discovers the truth about her friend's sexual preferences -- she's still sweet on the sweet lad -- but a scene or two later she's too easily mollified by Marcus's assertions that she must have known all along what he was about. Yeah, she admits, smiling too quickly, I guess I did, but doesn't the coincident acknowledgment of lifelong self-awareness on Marcus's part throw cold water on his purported struggle for his sexual identity?
Shua (Tobie L. Windham), Marcus (Richard Prioleau)
Rounding out the cast is Jared McNeill, who excelled as Elegba, Marcus's father, in Water, and gets to have lots of fun here as the mischief-making, charmingly randy Terrell. When he isn't dressed in white as the ghost of Oshoosi, Windham also plays Shua, who's all dark side and desire. And then there's Margo Hall, who is given the thankless task of playing three roles, two of which are mothers (Oba to Marcus, Shun to Osha) while the other is an unfortunate caricature of the community's obligatory crazy old aunt, Elegua.
The A.C.T production of Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet runs through November 21, 2010 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit act-sf.org.