As I watched Curious Theatre Company’s production of Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, there were moments when the close-to-heretical thought entered my mind that playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has been anointed a giant of the contemporary theater far too soon, that this play is raggedy in conception and goes on too long. (Marcus apparently began at eighty minutes, which seems about the right length, and has since grown.) But then there are other moments, the ones that soar, revealing an electrifying and transformative talent: vital, creative and full of a very specific energy. These moments create a cumulative effect more than worth experiencing.
Marcus is sixteen years old, and “sweet” — slang for gay. The word is brilliantly explained by one of his friends, Shaunta, who describes the way slaves were once punished for homosexuality by having a sticky sweet concoction applied to their lash wounds. Everyone in the fictional Louisiana bayou town of San Pere appears to know that Marcus is sweet, and their reactions are varied — from that of his mother, Oba, who thinks he should pray on it, to Shaunta, who’s hurt that he hasn’t confided in her, to Osha, another friend, bent on denying his sexual proclivities because she’s in love with him. Marcus himself is ambivalent and searching. He desperately wants to know whether his father, Elegba, was sweet, a question that’s never answered here — though those who’ve seen the two previous plays in McCraney’s trilogy have a pretty good idea. Marcus is visited in dreams by Oshoosi, Elegba’s close friend, who warns him of a hard rain to come. Marcus doesn’t know that Oshoosi is the vanished brother of Ogun, now an old man and a powerful force in this enclosed community, and it’s a long time before he tells Ogun of his dream.
Ogun, Oshoosi and Elegba were the three protagonists of The Brothers Size, McRaney’s dark, gleaming globe of a play about the battle for Oshoosi’s soul between his hardworking brother Ogun and the trickster Elegba, with whom Oshoosi became close in prison. In the Red and Brown Water is a kind of prequel to that: Here Ogun is just finding his strength, and Elegba is a pansexual and strangely witchy youngster. It isn’t necessary to know these things to appreciate Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. My daughter, who was with me for the performance, had no trouble understanding the relationships — though she sensed a secret about Elegba that she expected to have revealed but never was. It does deepen your emotional response to the performance, however, when you watch Damion Hoover’s wistful Marcus and remember him playing his own father — the humorously irrepressible teenage Elegba who came close to stealing In the Red and Brown Water last year (never was sexual discovery “sweeter or more down and dirty,” I wrote then); and the more cynical and destructive Elegba of The Brothers Size. And when Cajardo Lindsey’s Ogun finally learns that his beloved Oshoosi has visited Marcus in dreams and realizes that the words he spoke to Marcus signify his death, his quietly dignified response is profoundly moving.
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These performances are among the strongest in a generally strong ensemble that also includes Jada Suzanne Dixon’s calm-voiced Oba, Sheryl McCallum’s half-mad seer Elegua and Tanisha L Pyron’s ebullient Shaunta, among others.
Despite many flashes of brilliance, Marcus doesn’t quite tell a complete story, even a highly symbolic one; it’s frayed and holey. The characters have the names of Yoruba deities, and while those names enlarged the meaning in the first two plays of the trilogy, they are less resonant here — though there are echoes of Ogun’s identity as an arisha signifying fire and iron when the character appears wearing work overalls, as he did in The Brothers Size, and striking wooden spars with a hammer to reinforce a window against the torrent to come. We’re told several times that “sweet boys” have special abilities and their dreams are significant and predictive, and that there’s a torrential rain coming (originally the references were to Hurricane Katrina, but McCraney chose to take these specific references out) — and it sometimes feels as if the playwright believes that the repetition of the words “rain,” “dream” and “sweet” has a metaphoric power so strong that it obviates the need for plot or meaningful sequence. Still, Curious deserves applause for taking on the risky, exciting trilogy project and bringing it full circle.
Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 19,1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.