Tarell Alvin McCraney is big news on both sides of the Atlantic, with back-to-back London and New York prods of his drag play “Wig Out!” and his recent appointment as a Royal Shakespeare Company international writer-in-residence. The U.K. premiere of the second part of his Brother/Sister trilogy, “In the Red and Brown Water,” however, comes across as a damp squib. While the play is linguistically and intellectually rich, McCraney fails to find a compelling story on which to hang its themes and imagery, and the creative team exacerbates problems with a water set that, while visually stunning, literally swamps the text.
“Water” follows McCraney’s “The Brothers Size” in exploring the links between Yoruba mythology and contemporary black America, here layered with an apparent nod to Lorca’s “Yerma” in a story of a young woman driven to mad acts by her inability to have a child.
Oya (hypnotically watchable Ony Uhiara) is a talented teenage runner living in the Louisiana projects who forsakes a sports scholarship to care for her dying mother (Adjoa Andoh, powerful and empathetic). Romanced by two men, she initially chooses the sexy, irresponsible Shango (Ashley Walters, every bit Uhiara’s equal) over stuttering mechanic Ogun Size (likeably vulnerable Javone Prince).
Those who have seen “The Brothers Size” will experience pleasant recognition in seeing Ogun reappear, but McCraney is playing a difficult game in using references auds can’t be relied on to know — not just to his own previous work but to Yoruban deities and stories. His valuable point is that the U.S. (and arguably the rest of the developed West) has suppressed and ignored the cultural roots of its black populations.
But for those audiences unfamiliar with the Yoruban backdrop, it’s hard to read deeper significance or resonance into Oya’s story, and crucial questions — Is she cursed? Why? Does she have a hand to play in her own fate? — remain unanswered. The play falls between the stools of oblique social commentary and something mythological but obscure.
That being said, McCraney has an obvious gift for language and is developing an intriguingly non-naturalistic signature style in which characters narrate their stage directions as well as speak their lines.
Comprehension is hindered, however, by Miriam Buether’s high-concept design, which reconfigures the Young Vic space as a wide-open square arena submerged in several inches of water (auds sit in stacked balconies around the perimeter). Under Walter Meierjohann’s direction, performers splash around the space, usually unaware of or indifferent to their watery location. Setting seems prompted by the titular image, which the trickster figure Elegba (the charming John MacMillan) sees in a dream, of the doomed Oya floating in water tinted by her own blood.
But while Jean Kalman’s lighting helps create a gorgeously glinting setting, the sound of splashing often obscures the actors’ lines, and the design concept overall comes across as a distracting extra layer of signification.
Alongside this staging, the Young Vic is remounting its Olivier-nominated original co-prod of “The Brothers Size,” and in November attention shifts to the Royal Court, where a.d. Dominic Cooke will helm the London preem of “Wig Out!,” which just extended its Tina Landau-directed New York run at the Vineyard.