Before Diarra Kilpatrick was cast in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," at age 12, she already knew what she wanted to do with her life: anything but acting.
So when her hometown Detroit newspaper interviewed her about the production at a suburban theater, Kilpatrick told the reporter she wanted to be a lawyer or maybe the president of a public relations firm. But definitely not "a struggling actor," she said.
Recounting that anecdote recently at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, where she's playing the lead role in Tarell Alvin McCraney's mytho-poetic drama "In the Red and Brown Water," Kilpatrick laughed at the memory of her precocious pre-adolescent self.
Because by the time the article went to press, Kilpatrick knew what she absolutely had to do with her life: Be an actor.
"It was the quality of the actors that I got a chance to work with and see them up close," she said, explaining her overnight career conversion during "The Piano Lesson." "And the production, the material — it was August Wilson."
Startling transformations are the stuff of theatrical magic, and they're central to McCraney's play, which opened at the Fountain in October and has been extended through Feb. 24. "In the Red and Brown Water" is the first of McCraney's trilogy "The Brother/Sister Plays," produced off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2009.
Set during the "distant present" at a mythical housing project in a make-believe Louisiana bayou town, "In the Red and Brown Water" exists simultaneously in two conceptual dimensions.
There's the 21st century world of Oya (Kilpatrick), a high school track star torn between her college ambitions and the need to care for her ailing Mama Mojo (Peggy A. Blow) and between her affection for the stammering, sweetly devoted Ogun (Dorian Christian Baucum) and the dangerous erotic heat she feels whenever Shango (Gilbert Glenn Brown) comes around her door.
But in another dimension — parallel, yet inseparable — the play is a spiritual struggle that draws on the stories, cosmologies and archetypal gods of the Yoruba people of West Africa, whose legends were transported by slaves to the New World. Virtually all of the play's 10 characters are named for traditional Yoruba orishas, or spirits: Elegba, the shape-shifting trickster; Shango, god of fire and lightning; Ogun, the deity of iron-working and war.
And Oya, goddess of the Niger River, wind, storms and, as Kilpatrick puts it, "revolutionary transformation."
"It's not like 'Let's redecorate the house,' it's like 'Let's tear this [stuff] down! Let's knock the walls out!'" Kilpatrick explained. "So when Oya comes into your life, people fear her because it means your life is about to change."
For Kilpatrick, the task was to simultaneously, plausibly portray Oya as a contemporary young woman as well as a force of nature. "This is a girl who listens to Nicki Minaj and Rihanna," Kilpatrick said. "This is the texture of right now. But yeah, we also carry in our DNA these stories from hundreds and hundreds of years ago."
In his review, Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised the Fountain's production, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, as "sensational" and Kilpatrick as "superb."
Growing up in Detroit, Kilpatrick was taken regularly by her mother to plays, art exhibitions and other cultural events. "Let me just say, if there was a play that was done in Detroit I probably saw it, particularly if it was a black play, and let's say 95% of them are black plays in Detroit."
Between ages 12 and 16, Kilpatrick took part in Detroit's Mosaic Youth Theatre, one of the country's most accomplished youth theater programs. She also acted at her private college prep school, Detroit Country Day, before moving to the theater program at New York University, where she performed in plays like Suzan-Lori Parks' "In the Blood" and Stephen Adly Guirgis,' "Our Lady of 121st Street."
"I was one of the only black girls who had made it that far who could cuss and make it sound real," Kilpatrick said, laughing. NYU instructors strongly encouraged her to lose the vestigial Southern accent she'd picked up from her South Carolina-migrant forebears.
Given the realities of casting for African American actors, Kilpatrick said, it's important to be able to switch accents and speech styles depending on the role. "You don't want the private school to eat up all the richness of ... your flavor. Because no matter what that flavor is, that's going to be your calling card at the end of the day."
Kilpatrick came to Los Angeles in 2007. She has appeared in the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble's version of "Three Sisters," set in Trinidad, and as a half-black, half-Mexican transgender male in the Bootleg Theater's production of Gary Lennon's "The Interlopers" last year, among other roles.
But getting to play a role like Oya "is a blessing," especially with this cast and "Shirley Jo at the helm," she said.
"There aren't parts like this for black women very often. It's like Hamlet, it's like King Lear, it's Medea. It's an opportunity to really go in there."
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