Beyond the fact that it is sensational, the Fountain Theatre’s production of “In the Red and Brown Water” by Tarell Alvin McCraney is important for two reasons: It introduces Los Angeles audiences to a dramatic poet in the process of discovering his singular voice and it shows how magnificently one of L.A.'s better small theaters can serve bold new talent.
The play, which is part of McCraney’s “Brother/Sister” trilogy, brought the 32-year-old African American playwright a good deal of attention when the cycle was produced off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2009. The theater community had been whispering about McCraney since his student days at the Yale School of Drama, and though rumor is notoriously unreliable, this dramatist showed that he wasn’t just floating on a cloud of hype.
Shirley Jo Finney’s production at the Fountain — featuring one of the tightest ensembles I’ve seen this year — has helped me to appreciate the work more deeply than I did when I first encountered it in New York.
The play tells a simple enough story about a high school track star who forgoes college to take care of her ailing mother, whose death leads this young woman on a bitterly constricted journey that will force her to choose between safe love and destructive passion.
Although the tale might be straightforward, McCraney’s style is anything but. Highly poetic, song filled, experimental in its effects (stage directions are spoken along with the dialogue) and reaching out to cross-cultural myths, the play theatricalizes in almost expressionistic ways the inner world of the protagonist and the outer reality of her impoverished Louisiana existence.
The published version of “In the Red and Brown Water” supplies an explanatory subtitle: “A Fast and Loose Play on Spanish ‘Yerma’ and African Oya/Oba.” And indeed both Federico García Lorca’s tragic drama and the cosmology of the Yoruba people of West Africa guide McCraney in his pursuit of mythological meaning in a fictional housing project that combines the worst of inner-city stress with the limited options of a no-account Southern backwater. (“Fast and loose” indicate the quick tempo fluidity of a jazz riff.)
Oya (a superb Diarra Kilpatrick), named after the goddess of the Niger River, wind and storms, has a bright future in front of her when the play begins. A lightning-fast runner, she has a talent that can launch her out of her straitened circumstances. She also has the discipline and determination, but her heart prevents her from seizing her opportunity when her mother (Peggy A. Blow, in vivid form) falls ill.
Oya assumes this will be just a postponement of her plans, but life doesn’t provide many second chances for poor young black women.
Two men vie to fill the void: Ogun (the sensitive and alluring Dorian Christian Baucum), a kind working man with a stammer who wants only to take care of Oya (“I been in love with your light and your sad eyes./And I got this home inside me I know I do…/My outside seems like it’s fragile but in here/A big man that will wrap you in love….”). The dangerous and blunt Shango (a commanding Gilbert Glenn Brown) has more carnal aspirations (“I got something drawing to you and I feel you drawing to me”).
McCraney populates this world with an array of shimmering eccentrics, including the young, candy-obsessed bisexual Elegba (a spryly comic Theodore Perkins) and the capricious busybody Aunt Elegua (the electric Iona Morris). Finney’s entire cast is note-perfect, a gift to these characters. The actors hear the music of McCraney’s language and sing it to life.
The ending of the play, a violently surreal expression of the barrenness Oya feels, doesn’t seem entirely earned. But it’s in keeping with a writer of thrilling, Icarus-like ambition. McCraney’s wings may get scorched as he soars into a blinding archetypal light, but, oh, how he flies.
‘In the Red and Brown Water’
Where: The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 16.
Contact: (323) 663-1525 or https://www.FountainTheatre.com
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes