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Running into the sun: ‘In the Red and Brown Water’ at the Guthrie

It’s very hard to write about something when you don’t know precisely what to say about it. Such is the case with “In the Red and Brown Water,” produced by Pillsbury House and playing at the Guthrie.

It’s very hard to write about something when you don’t know precisely what to say about it. Such is the case with “In the Red and Brown Water,” produced by Pillsbury House and playing at the Guthrie. The play is the first part of a trilogy of plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Brother/Sister Plays, and I am not convinced it is possible to effectively address one part of a trilogy without having seen the other parts, especially as this portion does not feel like a stand-alone play. I shall try, but there is the risk that criticisms I have may be redressed in later shows, or I may throw bouquets for things that are later undermined. And it’s possible this script is, in fact, intended to stand alone, in which case I don’t think it succeeds entirely.

The story isn’t a terribly complex one, telling of a young Louisiana runner whose educational scholarship is sidelined by her mother’s illness, and then is caught in a musical chairs of relationships between a man whom she loves but who is not good for her and a man who is good for her but she does not love. This isn’t terribly fresh storytelling, and, even if it were, there are some real problems in the telling, as I shall detail. But first, let’s start with the author’s voice, which is extraordinary.

Tarell Alvin McCraney has developed quite a reputation as a writer, and I can see why. He’s enormously skilled at writing dialogue, which feels natural and mannered all at once. His dialogue is punchy, character-driven, and often hilarious. Additionally, he has an enjoyably experimental edge — in this play, characters announce their entrances and exits and read aloud some of their stage directions, which risks being a gimmick, but is well-used, offering an additional element of commentary or counterpoint.

Additionally, McCraney has named his play’s characters after Yoruba deities, and given his characters aspects of their namesakes. The main character, as an example, is Oya, who is the spirit of change, and she is the mother of the Niger river. Both attributes are reflected in the play, the latter in a dream that provides the play with its title. But these names just seem to be touchstones — this is not a retelling of Yoruba mythology. The play has her married to Ogun, who in myth is a warrior given to destructive rages, but here is a taciturn working man with a stutter. For a while, at least. Oya doesn’t like his stutter, demands that he stop, and he promises to and promptly does, a quick fix for a stammer that “The King’s Speech” did not entertain.

Christiana Clark in "In the Red and Brown Water"
Photo by Travis Anderson
Christiana Clark in “In the Red and Brown Water”

It’s interesting to see McCraney bounce his story off these myths, although this also makes it a bit hard to address the play critically — old myths often have a sensibility that is decidedly not modern, and it can be hard to tell if some of the dramatic decisions in the play are prompted by fealty to myths that, in a modern retelling, are problematic. For example, the second act rises and falls around Oya’s infertility, which shames her, and her growing obsession with another man, Shango, a professional soldier who just shows up long enough to seduce her, become irritated with her, and leave again. The play climaxes with a bloodletting, as plays often do, this one offered as a sort of mad apology to Shango. Oya cannot give him a child, so she offers up a substitute.

I’m going to bypass a feminist analysis of this, although I think it’s there — the second act seems to uncritically present the idea that a woman’s primary value to a man is as the mother of his child, and that infertility renders a woman humiliated and useless. (From my readings of Yoruba myths, this feels inconsistent; in them, Oya is defined by her own fantastical qualities, and not by her relationship to men, or her ability to bear children for them.) I may be misreading this, but I keep searching through the second act in my mind, looking for an alternate reading, or something in the text that would demonstrate awareness that this is a troubling proposition, but I find nothing. Nonetheless, I don’t have the script in front of me, and these questions may be addressed in one of the later plays in the trilogy, so I don’t feel comfortable doing more than touching on my discomfort.

But if the play is meant to stand alone, we have been given just enough to have a story, but not enough to make it entirely credible. Oya starts the play as a cheerful, self-possessed young woman with a singular talent, but this is quickly dropped in favor of her boyfriend troubles. When we first meet Shango, he is sexually aggressive, has a temper problem, and is a bit of a bully. She falls into his arms after her mother’s death — which is disappointing but credible. But then, over the course of the play, Oya somehow convinces herself that he’s the right man for her.

This progression is sketched in, as it must be, as Shango is away at war for most of the play. And Oya’s athleticism, which obsessed her at the start of the play, is quietly dropped in favor of man troubles — she’s quizzed once on whether she’s running anymore, and Oya just sort of shrugs it off, but it doesn’t feel so much like she’s abandoned it as that the playwright has.

There is a risk that very smart writing can compensate for flawed writing, and I suspect that has happened here, although I suspect somebody can make a compelling case as to why the shame of infertility must be the climax of the play, and why Oya must love Shango, despite barely knowing him. I might even see the play again — even if I come away with the same criticisms, this production is excellent and worth seeing for its own merits. The cast is superlative, especially Christiana Clark as Oya. She must carry the play, and must, in a way, explain it — her performance must convince us that Oya would go from unstoppable athlete to madwoman, and she does.

The cast also includes Gavin Lawrence as a tricksterish character named Elegba, who ages from a candy-obsessed child to a young man with an interest in another sort of candy, and it’s fascinating to watch Lawrence start the play with the loose-limbed wheedling and tantruming of a boy and age the exact same gestures into a juvenile swagger. The script may or may not be fraught with problems; the production isn’t.