Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet” is the taut, moving completion of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother/ Sister Plays” trilogy. Produced together for the first time at the McCarter Theater Center, the plays — part one, “In the Red and Brown Water,” directed by Tina Landau; parts two and three, “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus,” both directed by Robert O’Hara — deliver on the dazzling promise of this 29-year-old writer, who recently added to his list of honors with the New York Times playwright award and is Intl. Writer in Residency for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The three plays will move to the Public Theater, and then to Chicago’s Steppenwolf, and although each can stand alone, seeing them in a marathon day provides additional pleasure. Not only do the characters reappear older or younger, revealing complicated and often confusing relationships, but additional layers are added by the actors doubling or tripling in their roles. The cast is uniformly splendid, creating strong connections between audience and stage, between the plays, and between the generations of characters, so that a daughter will echo her mother, a son his father — who is unknown to him, but known to us.
“Marcus” is about a young man (Alano Miller) who is “sweet,” black Southern slang for gay. A sassy teenager speculates the term must have come down from slavery days, when homosexuality was viciously punished by slave owners (for whom it was economically disadvantageous: no children, fewer slaves) by pouring sugar into the wounds caused by whippings; the sugar would then melt and turn into festering syrup in the sun.
The conventional coming-of-age, coming-out drama is transformed by the unconventional style of the play: Characters speak their own stage directions, the company unites suddenly in gestures of invocation, and they are unencumbered by a realistic set. The spectacular architectural design by James Schuette features burnished industrial steel on a vast expanse of gleaming marble floor.
Marcus is tormented by his sexual secret; by his status as poor, black and good at Latin; and by adolescence itself (“when you wanna/Just get up on table tops and scream”). And nobody will tell him about his father. He is further tormented by a dream of hard rain. Forebodings of storms and water run through all three plays, and although Katrina is never mentioned, the hurricane looms as both the sociopolitical tragedy and the natural disaster it was.
Because audiences are less likely to know Yoruban myth, the density of meaning that can be gained by allusion is largely lost. If a playwright names a character Dido or Antigone, we have shorthand resonance, while naming a character Oya or Elegba or Shango provides no clues for most of us. If we did know our mythology, we’d know that Oya (the central character of “Water”) will cut off her ear; that Elegba (Marcus’ father) is the trickster deity, always provoking trouble; and that Shango (Oya’s lover who is killed in the war in Iraq) is the god of thunder.
Nevertheless, it’s obvious from the rhythms of the language that McCraney has been inspired by the Yoruba stories to write beyond and above the gritty, dangerous world of the projects in San Pere, La., and his characters are invested with a size and weight beyond their meager daily lives. The play is set in the “distant present,” which somehow makes perfect sense.