Following his debut play, “The Brothers Size,” seen last season at the Public Theater, Tarell Alvin McCraney continues to fulfill his promise as an original new voice in the American theater with the world preem at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater of “In the Red and Brown Water,” a haunting and powerful piece of mythic art that works on a poetic as well as theatrical level in Tina Landau’s dream of a production.
New play by the 27-year-old scribe is part of his “Brother/Sister” trilogy that includes the fraternal-centric “The Brothers Size” and the touching “Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet,” which capped McCraney’s tenure as a student playwright last year at the Yale School of Drama.
McCraney taps into West African Yoruban mythology as re-envisioned in a theatrical vocabulary that includes American urban, bayou and pop culture. The ritualistic presentation is evident from the start as the ensemble enters with buckets, pails and tubs that are used for percussion, props and as part of the free-flowing play’s watery imagery.
“In the Red and Brown Water” begins the trilogy’s loose narrative as it follows a group of siblings and their friends and lovers in San Pere, La. Piece centers on Oya (Kianne Muschett), a teenage girl living in the projects who has a talent for track but declines a college offer in order to care for her ailing mother (Chinai J. Hardy).
In the year that follows her mother’s death, Oya becomes torn between two men: a stuttering, spiritual, hard-working auto mechanic, Ogun (Andre Holland), who is devoted to her; and a swaggering, smooth-talking stud, Shango (Rodrick Covington), who woos her with his charm and caresses that take her breath away. (Her mother warned Oya of Shango’s pull: “Some of the nastiest things come wrapped like that.”)
Populating the scene is lusty Aunt Elegua (Heather Alicia Simms), who cautions Oya, “Be fast in the feet and not in the ass.” Then there’s Elegua’s candy-loving, trouble-making nephew Elegba (Jon Michael Hall), a white shopkeeper (Daniel May), and two neighborhood gals humming with gossip (Carra Patterson, Sharisa Whatley), who only remind Oya of her barren life.
McCraney’s characters announce their own stage directions (a technique used in all three of his plays) in a way that accents the generations-old storytelling tradition as well as drawing the aud into the narrative’s theatricality.
The Alliance production uses a long horizontal acting space stripped to the back wall. Mimi Lien’s copper and brown reflective floor is the only design flourish, evocative of the “red and brown” stream in which Oya floats in a foreshadowing dream. In that raw space, Scott Zielinski’s lighting, Jessica Jahn’s costumes and Mimi Epstein’s sound scheme beautifully evoke the lyrical world of the play. Landau keeps the movement fluid with a dynamic grace that compliments McCraney’s gentle poetry and open heart.
The thesps find the rhythms of McCraney’s musical dialogue, making it as natural as breathing. The ensemble cast is solid, but Muschett is especially affecting as the young Oya, who finds strength and resolve as one dream after another is dashed.
Covington is a powerful presence as Shango, and Holland is heartbreaking, especially in a scene where he professes his love and banishes his speech impediment. Hall brings sass and humor as Oya’s insatiable friend who is desperate to leave his mark.
Though characters, themes and incidents echo in subsequent plays in the cycle (the dynamics of the central romantic triangle are related by Ogun in “The Brothers Size”), “In the Red and Brown Water” stands alone here, a fresh, absorbing work that is simply spellbinding.