Theater Review: In the Red and Brown Water Is Hit and Myth at Curious

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney grew up in a Miami housing project, attended graduate school at Yale, where he worked as August Wilson’s assistant, and went on to fame and acclamation as an entirely new voice in theater while still in his twenties. Curious Theatre Company staged McCraney’s The Brothers Size last year and will bring it back this summer, and the second work in McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, In the Red and Brown Water, is currently showing there; the third will see production next year. This is an experiment in audience involvement for the company, according to artistic director Chip Walton, a “commitment to tell stories that go beyond a single night.”

The Brothers Size was a bombshell, a rounded, dark, glorious story about the relationship between two brothers: Ogun, a hardworking car mechanic, and Oshoosi, who has just been released from prison. There’s also the strange, shape-shifting trickster Elegba, who does all he can to come between the two. The story is told in completely original language — sometimes realistic, sometimes blazing into poetic life. Stage directions are spoken as part of the text, and the play utilizes rhythm and movement. It also has a mythic dimension: The three protagonists are named for Yoruba deities.

In the Red and Brown Water is a prequel: Ogun is just beginning his business, Oshoosi is still imprisoned. The central character is Oya, and that name belongs to another Yoruba deity, this one connected with tempests, winds, and the flow of rivers. She is a teenage runner whose athletic talents may promise an escape from the Louisiana projects where she lives with her mother. Sure enough, she’s offered a scholarship. But by now, Mama Moja is ill and Oya feels unable to leave. This fateful decision traps Oya and shapes the rest of her tormented life as she partners with Ogun, falls for the warrior Shango, and discovers to her unending grief that she is barren.

Like The Brothers Size, this piece relies a great deal on dreams and symbolism, chanting and rhythm — but for me it’s a less successful play. In Brothers, symbolism and realism work together, and the characters feel like real people; the fact that they’re named for gods adds dimension and richness rather than dictating the action. You feel for these brothers and sense their difficult love. Because there’s a lot at stake, you care a lot about the outcome.

But despite a warmly sympathetic performance by Kristen Adele, Oya remains a figurehead. You understand her desperation intellectually, but you don’t feel it emotionally. Okay, you think, Oya’s passion for running corroded within her after she lost the scholarship — maybe that’s why she can’t conceive. And she also symbolizes a modern truth — the way that young black women are so often trapped. But these are your inferences; they’re not supported by the dialogue. Girls often reject nice guys in favor of sexy bastards (think of Porgy and Bess, not to mention romance-novel heroines), but Oya shows neither affection for Ogun nor passion for Shango. The affair makes sense only within the context of Yoruba myth. Oya’s childlessness is inspired by Lorca’s Yerma, but why do you need to know these things in order to be engaged by the play?

Instead of deepening the action or pulling you in the way dance does, McCraney’s dramatic devices seem like an overlay — sometimes fascinating, sometimes irrelevant. Oh, look, you say to yourself, dead Mama Moja has become a prophetess or truth-sayer, and what a clever combination of myth and modern to show her as a shadow behind a freshly hung laundered sheet. But you didn’t come for clever. You came for something deeper.

When this story does blaze to life, it’s because of McCraney’s astonishing language, and the production works best when the actors give that language its due. Some of the performers speak so fast, however, that you can’t figure out the words. Still, as Elegba matures from a chocolate-obsessed kid to a womanizing teen (yes, the trickster from Brothers appears here, too), Damion Hoover makes his every sizzling word clear, while almost prancing away with the entire evening. Seldom has sexual discovery sounded sweeter or more down and dirty. There are fine, lucid performances from Adele and Jada Suzanne Dixon as Mama Moja. And when Cajardo Rameer Lindsey, playing Ogun, declares his love for Oya, he simply and quietly lays open your heart. 

In the Red and Brown Water, presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524,
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman