‘In The Red and Brown Water,” running through Sunday, June 21, at McCarter’s Berlind Theater, is the opening play of a trilogy by Tarell Alvin McCraney, already recognized, at age 28, as one of the most startling new voices ever to emerge in American theater. Grounded in the realities faced by growing up black and gay in the projects of Miami, Florida, in the 1980s, he has transformed and translated that life into fictional drama that is both gritty and lyrical; urban and mythic. He has mixed traditions of the past as disparate as Greek and storybook; calypso and minstrel, and in the process developed a style that is a rich new brew, broader and deeper than one has ever experienced.
The trilogy, titled “The Brother/Sister Plays,” continues in a fortnight, when the second and third plays — “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” — will be added. The McCarter production is the first time all three have played together in repertory. The company of nine actors will play multiple roles as they span the 26 years of the story. Tina Landau directs “In the Red and Brown Water” and Robert O’Hara directs evening two. The plays can be seen in any order.
What this refreshing young playwright is suggesting is that theater itself is uniquely able to bring questions to the mind and that the theater audience community itself is uniquely capable, if encouraged, to respond to those questions far beyond the usual give and take of audience participation.
It was at age 10 that playwright McCraney realized that he was, in his own word, “different.” At the age when others would yearn for army tanks and plastic uzis, he had his heart set on a pair of ballet shoes. He became an actor, apparently a very good one, went to Yale Drama School’s playwriting program, was discovered and mentored by British director Peter Brook, and was asked by the Yale Drama administration to serve as the assistant to the late playwright August Wilson. McCraney has stated that he wants to expand the boundaries of theater to fulfill its sense of community, to enhance motifs that have been present ever since the beginnings of religion — but to keep the sense of ritual and remembrance.
In “In the Red and Brown Water,” McCraney introduces a young heroine, Oya, here played exquisitely by Kianna Muschett, who is wooed by a succession of the village suitors. With typical casualness, the playwright suggests the time as “the distant present” and sets the location in the mythical San Pere, Louisiana. Oya has her own dreams, highlighted by an athletic running style and speed that attracts even the white coaches from the state schools. The episodes are played both for comedy (each of the suitors seems to exhibit only one or two qualities that one might find attractive) and pathos. Music is an integral part of the evening, and it comes in various forms, from a variety of traditions.
McCraney has his actors speak the stage directions, as well as act them out. This allows the playwright to capture the audience’s attention as well as force them to use their own minds, i.e., “Elegba enters like a moon eclipsing the sun.” Sometimes the directions merely suggest the costume: “Shango enters; he stands in his officer’s uniform.” Such a direction also draws attention to the fact that, for the most part, the company is in pure white, and that when color is used, pay particular attention.
In McCraney’s own description, this is “a fast and loose play.” Every movement from the most frantic tribal dancing to the tiniest coy semi-smile is meaningful. The stage is bare, suggesting a dance recital rehearsal hall, which, naturally enough, allows one to focus on the cast, what director Tina Landau has them doing, and what playwright McCraney has them thinking and saying. It is thrillingly risky as the simple tale unfolds. The playwright trusts his audience by suggesting he is writing for them only; his stage directions would not be of any use in a novel, and the entrances down the aisles and speeches from balcony boxes would make no sense in a film. The writer is asking us to listen carefully to the questions and, in return, is clearly waiting to hear our responses.
And you should know that playwright McCraney comes to this point in his life, with a mother, a drug user, who died from an HIV-related illness; a brother imprisoned, and a sister who has just graduated from college. He was not at the theater on opening night; he was in Georgia to attend his sister’s graduation. I, for one, can’t wait for the rest of “The Brother/Sister Plays.”
“In the Red and Brown Water,” McCarter Theater at the Berlind, 91 University Place. Through Sunday, June 21. Evening I of “The Brother/Sister Plays” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Adult language and mature themes. Evening II — “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” — begins Thursday, May 14. The plays may be seen in any order. $36 to $49. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.