Thanks to Cale and my inescapable nerdery, the field of evolutionary psychology is never far from my thoughts. It suggests the fundamental desire to procreate is the basis for all kinds of human behavior, even destructive compulsions one wouldn’t necessarily anticipate. I thought of evolutionary psychology during In the Red and Brown Water, now playing at the Studio Theater, precisely because it focuses on a young woman who cannot conceive children. Her infertility has a profound impact on both her eroding sanity and those who love her. In possession of a Y chromosome, immediate empathy doesn’t naturally arrive. But because of its lyrical dialogue and bizarrely involving performances, I can understand how hollow she must feel. Borrowing from classical and storytelling traditions, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play combines the otherworldly and familiar into something singular and affecting. His bold risk has a multifaceted payoff.
The young woman is Oya (Raushanah Simmons), who from an early age shows promise as an athlete. A man from State (Michael Harris) comes around and offers her a chance at an education. With an opportunity to leave the poverty-stricken Louisiana bayou, Oya nonetheless hesitates because her Mama Moja (Denise Diggs) has fallen ill. In addition to familial concerns, Oya must contend with two suitors: the warm-hearted Ogun (Jahi A. Kearse) who has a stutter and a good job, and the velvet-tongued Shango (Yaegel T. Welch) who has undeniable charm and bedroom prowess. Mama Moja soon succumbs to her illness, so Oya relies on insatiable Aunt Elegua (Deidra LaWan Starnes) for guidance. After a passionate affair with Shango and a reliable relationship with Ogun, Oya is reeling from her inability to conceive. Her young friend Legba (Mark Hairston) provides some levity, even after he brings his own child into the world. Oya comes to feel alienated from her community, and her peers offer little support, going so far as to tease her reproductive shortcomings. Without guidance or an athletic scholarship, Oya becomes increasingly desperate. Tragedy seems inevitable.
The dialogue is striking, even a distraction at first, yet its poetic timbre has an undeniable impact. Some speeches, such as when Legba evocatively describes a dream, use everyday language to create unique imagery. McCraney’s secondary characters are both classic chorus and ancillary neighbors; his fusion of disparate theatrical tropes (the bold risk in question) is strangely arresting, allowing him to combine pain and laughter in the same space. One flourish in particular, when characters announce their entrances and exits onto the stage, reminds the audience they’re watching a performance. It’s a curious trick at first, one that heightens the artifice of the production, yet it creates familiarity with the characters and their motivations. Every time Welch intones “Enter Shango,” he shows the audience he’s still a lovable Lothario with lecherously playful confidence. The use of music is another unexpected juxtaposition – drawing from African traditions and party hip-hop, director Serge Seiden seemlessly interweaves McCarney’s themes into the production.
The cast’s talent meets the high expectations set by the script. It’s difficult to say which performer is strongest. With one minor objection, the actors embody their characters, and create soulful archetypes capable of acute emotion. As Shango, Welch deserves special attention – his entrances are irritating at first, yet become more welcome as the play continues (in my section of the theater, his every line elicited warm laughter by the play’s conclusion). Deidra LaWan Starnes is another standout as Aunt Elegua. She tries to coax Oya out of her depression, suggesting the young woman can choose to become complete, and her methods are both hilarious and heart-wrenching. Even in middle age, Elegua’s zeal and sexuality strongly define her, so it’s a delight to watch her function as a de-facto mentor. Of course at the center of everything is Raushanah Simmons as Oya, whose height and striking beauty help define her character. With tense body language and a cracked, heartbroken voice, Simmons is the center of attention for cast and audience alike, and the actress never falters. My friend who joined me, a woman infinitely more observant of female body language than myself, later remarked how Simmons conveys more world-weary sadness as the play continues, and she’s exactly right. Oya ages a lifetime as her story unfolds – thankfully Simmons is up to the difficult task.
Early reviews observe how McCraney is an original voice, one worth remembering in contemporary theater. Such praise is thrown around so often its meaning is diminished; despite my skepticism, I agree with the critics. McCarney is poetic and down-to-earth, and uses wide-ranging influences to create something new and exciting. He recognizes royalty and the poverty-stricken often have the same constraints and obligations, so his classical influences are perfect for his Louisiana setting. The director and production team understand such a voice requires only the most basic on-stage requirements. Like many Shakespeare performances, In the Red and Brown Water uses minimal props and set design, thereby giving the audience no choice but to savor the rich language and powerful acting. In a unexpected way, McCarney considers the hopes and fears women regularly face, and tenderly observes how such adversity can provoke courage or even despair. It’s a lofty ambition, particularly from a male playwright, and he wildly succeeds. He articulates the kind of agony that’s experienced on a primal, often indescribable level. You shouldn’t miss this play – theater is rarely this heartfelt or life-affirming.
In the Red and Brown Water is playing at the Studio Theater until February 28th. Buy tickets here.