A Quest for Joy

Review of In the Red and Brown Water, Yale Cabaret

The cycle of life as a journey under the influences of various gods is an idea common to many religions. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s mythopoetic play, In the Red and Brown Water, directed by YSD playwright Tori Sampson at Yale Cabaret, puts on the stage orishas from the Yoruba religion to enact a drama centered on a young girl’s coming of age and arrival at a moment of sacrifice or surrender. The play’s grasp of the folkloric quality of these characters, dramatized by the engaging performances of the actors, holds viewers in a world that is both natural and mythic.

Annie Dauber’s impressive set—a porch of a rustic dwelling—imposes a sense of place but also, with the actors seated along the sides of the stage, creates an arena-like space where ritual might be enacted. Sampson’s direction communicates the feel of a folktale enacted by a troupe of actors who play the show for the sake of its communal meaning. McCraney’s device of having actors include stage narrative in their lines adds an element of story-telling that further deepens the air of time-honored actions, as in a myth where events follow a set pattern.

 Rear: Kevin Hourigan, Jakeem Powell, Erron Crawford; Foreground: Courtney Jamison, Mose Ingram. Amanda Jahava

Rear: Kevin Hourigan, Jakeem Powell, Erron Crawford; Foreground: Courtney Jamison, Mose Ingram. Amanda Jahava

As both archetypes of elemental qualities, like thunder or air, and personal attributes, like “tireless loyalty,” the orishas are personified in characters in a specific milieu surrounding a Louisianan family. Oya (Moses Ingram), an orisha of the air, is here a teen girl who might become a great track athlete. Her Mamma Moja (Kineta Kunutu), a maternal orisha, hinders her dreams in a traditional way: she expects her daughter to find a man and be fertile. And there are interested local males—boys at first who become men in the course of the tale: Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham) is a kind of walking representation of masculinity, while Ogun (Leland Fowler), a more intellectual version of the masculine, has a stutter and is therefore timid in showing his passion.

 Oya (Moses Ingram), Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham)

Oya (Moses Ingram), Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham)

Oya’s own passion—as a runner—gets sidetracked despite a place for her at the state college. That, and the loss of Mamma Moja, precipitates most of the play’s drama, its succession of scenes playing out as the signposts of Oya’s journey. Tied up closely with her story is that of Elegba (Erron Crawford), who we see first as a whining child too fond of candy and watch become something like a wise and androgynous father figure. Comedy in the tale comes from Aunt Elegua, Ogun’s aunt and Oya’s god-mother, played with a campy liveliness by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, who gives Elegua a knowingness that escapes caricature. Also on hand to be teasing goads to Oya are overtly slinky local females Nia (Amandla Jahava) and Shun (Courtney Jamison), the latter a temptation to Shango while still Oya’s lover. The Egunegun (Jakeem Powell) is a party-loving mixer and O Li Roon (Kevin Hourigan) a ridiculous curmudgeon as store owner.

In the Red and Brown Water resonates as a story about determining the proper course in life to pursue, in hopes of attaining a pure joy. Oya’s strengths make her an engaging heroine, but her passivity opens up possibilities with others in her life as we watch to see who will dominate the tale. The highly sexual dance sequence might lead us to think of the play as a fertility rite in which the struggle to escape biological—and perhaps elemental and spiritual—determinants must be both dramatized and exorcised. In the end, orishas, no doubt, must be true to their essential natures, but humans, as imperfect enactments of divine intentions, suffer from having more than one nature.

 

In the Red and Brown Water
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tori Sampson

Assistant Director: Leland Fowler; Dramaturg: Lisa D. Richardson; Set Designer: Annie Dauber; Costume Designer: Mika Eubanks; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Projection Designer: Brittany Bland; Technical Director: LT Guorzong; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Co-Producers: Lauren E. Banks, Al Heartley

Cast: Erron Crawford, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Leland Fowler, Jonathan Higginbotham, Kevin Hourigan, Moses Ingram, Amandla Jahava, Courtney Jamison, Kineta Kunutu

 

Yale Cabaret
January 12-14, 2017