Review by Tulis McCall
17 Nov 2009
Oh boy oh boy-o. I like this writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney. I like his fancy, his whims, and his daring. He doesn’t tell me where we are going when the trip begins, nor does he explain how we go so far away in so short a time. He just points the car and steps on the gas.
These three plays, Part 1: In The Red and Brown Water and Part 2: The Brothers Size, and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet feature an outstanding cast of nine playing twenty characters. Everything takes place in the Distant Present, San Pere, Louisiana - somewhere in the Bayou. That is all we know and all we need to know. Each play is a combination of tales from the Yoruba, featuring Ogun, benevolent god of iron and war, Shango, God of thunder, lightning and vengance, Oya, goddess of the River Niger, and Elegba the trickster god.
In Part 1: In The Red and Brown Water, Oya (Kianné Muschett) is a young woman who gives up her dream of being an athlete and a college student in order to stay with her mother who is dying. Once her mother is gone, home for Oya becomes a sultry prison where the main occupation of the people is to have babies, because babies have some sunshine in them. Oya falls in love with Shango (Sterling K. Brown) who leaves her to follow his path as a soldier. In his wake comes Ogun (Marc Damon Johnson), a fine man who loves Oya in a mighty way. It is not a love that touches Oya’s soul, however, and her heart stays isolated as she waits for Shango who never truly returns to her.
In Part 2: The Brothers Size – all puns intended I’m certain – Ogun and Oshoosi Size (Brian Tyree Henry) struggle with creating a new life now that Oshoosi has returned from prison. And it might have worked but for Elegba, (Andre Holland) who is there twisting and tempting at every moment. In Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet the same excellent Andre Holland transforms himself into Elegba’s son, Marcus. Marcus has inherited his father’s ability to dream the future and wonders if he, like his father, is “sweet.” We see him transform from a boy to a man in the same way we see Ogun age and descend into the end of his life. Marvelous.
The facts of the stories are not as remarkable as the telling. Myths are made by the people who tell them, not the characters who inhabit them. Particularly in Part 1 Tina Landau has made use of every actor’s every minute onstage. Of the two plays, In The Red and Brown Water commands our deeper attention because it never lets us alone. In this trilogy McCraney has the actors speak many of the stage directions, and using the chorus to execute smiles, looks, sighs etc., makes the space in the theatre shimmer. This is ensemble work at its finest.
Both Parts 1 and 2 succeed, however, in spinning their tales with a sort of magic precision. People die and become legends, myths. People are born and pick up the thread of the legend to whirl it into new cloth. The actors have been marinated in this text and their performances are more than fine. There is not a false note to be heard or a wasted movement to be seen. Hope and despair, joy and grief, courage and fear are the elements that walk this stage, and we keep pace.
This is another planet, this bayou country where the Brother/Sister stories live. It is an elevated and mysterious place where what you see is just the beginning and what you feel is never the end. And the trip is worth making.
BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "Pumped full of a senses-heightening oxygen that leaves you tingling."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, "An original story that courses with a captivating theatricality."
ELISABETH VINCENTELLI for NEW YORK POST says, "The plays entertain almost in spite of themselves."
EEIK HAAGENSEN for BACK STAGE says, "A good deal of overblown mythologizing combined with a paucity of convincing character writing."
JENNIFER FARRAR for ASSOCIATED PRESS says, "McCraney's poetic, crackling dialogue is conveyed in his distinctive style."
DAVID ROONEY for VARIETY says, "If there's an heir to the legacy of August Wilson, the gifted 29-year-old McCraney may be on his way to claiming that title."