In the Red and Brown Water
Melding a variety of theatrical traditions—the chorus of Greek tragedy, Federico García Lorca’s Yerma, and the “choreopoem” style of Ntozake Shange—with the African-American experience, one of the brightest young American playwrights, Tarell Alvin McCraney, gives us In the Red and Brown Water, now in energetic and heartbreaking production at Celebration Arts. His characters, young black men and women, live in a very real Louisiana neighborhood, but they are also orishas, embodiments of the Yoruba pantheon of deities.
Oya (Jenabah Karoma) is a young woman with an athletic gift; she can run like the wind, the embodiment of the warrior goddess of the Niger River. Offered a chance to run at the collegiate level, Oya passes it up because her mother is dying. From there, the play explores her grief over loss of both her mother and her chance at life; her turbulent relationship with Shango (Tory Scroggins), the volatile, stormy, warrior; and her dispassionate union with Ogun (Tarig Elsiddig), the steady, hardworking man who loves her. Other deities also appear: Elegba (Coleman Daniel) and Aunt Elegua (Karen Travis), the trickster gods who are both lovable and dangerous; Nia (Marivel Palone) and Shun (Briana Anderson), in the guise of neighborhood women; Egungun (Conrad Crump), the ancestor-god and DJ; Olorun, a sun god, as a storekeeper named O. L. Roon (Philip Pittman); even Oya’s mother, Mother Moja (Brooklynn Solomon), the mother of gods.
As Oya, Karoma is nothing short of amazing, with raw power and fragility at war in her life. The chemistry of her interactions with Scroggins, Elsiddig and Daniel—the fine young actors playing Shango, Ogun and Elegba—is varied but always telling. Travis takes her role beyond mere comic relief (and there’s a dance sequence that must be seen to be believed) to explore how it is that community elders remain children at heart.
Director James Wheatley keeps the production moving at a steady pace, with the exception of blackouts that seem lengthier than need be—the play itself is written to highlight the artifice of performance, so allowing stage business to be seen would not be a tone break—and his stage design is elegant in its simplicity.
Of course, it’s not necessary to understand the Yoruba religion to understand that more is at stake in life than just one person’s ambitions. The real lesson here is the power of community to make us strong—if we’ll allow it.