Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Review: Hattiloo Theatre's MARCUS; OR THE SECRET OF SWEET Offers Dreams for Some, Nightmares for Others

On the surface, Hattiloo Theatre's streamlined production of Tarrell Alvin McCraney's MARCUS; OR THE SECRET OF SWEET might seem a variation on a familiar theme: A young man troubled by dreams and conflicted about his identity seems to "hit a brick wall" when he turns to others to try discover why he is, what he is -- "sweet," a kind of code word for homosexuality. That might seem a facile enough summary of what this play is about, but to shrug one's shoulders and miss this committed little production would be to miss also the fascinating journey in which it is couched.

Mr. McCraney's play is actually the third in a trilogy, and even though it can stand on its own (in much the same manner as a work by, say, August Wilson), I regretted my lack of familiarity with the two that preceded it, IN THE RED AND BROWN WATER and THE BROTHERS SIZE (though a helpful diagram of characters in the back of the program serves as a reminder for those who might have seen those plays and for those, like me, who become curious about what has preceded it).

As the play begins, a figure comes swimming into Marcus' dreams (a choreographic turn by Derrick Johnson). As the troubling dream ends, Marcus awakens to a world no less puzzling to him. A senior in high school, he is a young man confused by his attraction to both sexes: On the one hand, there is his very real love for Osha, a soul mate from childhood whose disproving and scowling mother Shun tries to separate; on the other hand, there are the young men at school, taking advantage of Marcus' "sweetness" and arousing him as they look over his shoulders for test answers. Marcus is, in fact, on a dual quest. He is not only seeking to define himself, but to find out more about his late father. Did his father also have these same traits? Was he also "sweet"?

While Cameron Yates' earnest, sympathetic young "Marcus" is clearly the central character here, I found myself interested in the way that those around him responded to his nature and to his quest. His worried mother "Oba" (Mary Ann Washington), disturbed by his "sweet" leanings and nocturnal habits, thinks that some libidos are best left buried. Osha's mother, certain that she knows his "type," blisteringly dismisses him. "Aunt Elegua," however, seems almost supernaturally possessed of the answers even before the questions have been asked (she's much like the aunt in the August Wilson plays): A character dismissed by others as a beer-smelling eccentric, she insists that he hold on to the images in his dreams.

The absence of a set as such is not a detriment to this play, as changing shades of color (very effective lighting by Phillip Hughen) and crescendo-like sound effects remind us of a coming storm, both physical and emotional. Moreover, there's a canny blend of the real and the supernatural, the mundane and the magical. Mr. McCraney's dialogue can be "down and dirty" in some passages; yet, poetic and moving in others. Some moments are especially searing (there's one particularly effective anecdote about the fate of "sweet" lovers in plantation days, and the images there rival the descriptive power of a Langston Hughes).

Mr. McCraney's script is interesting, in fact, on a number of levels. The characters not only speak their lines, but offer stage directions and descriptions of themselves as well. Furthermore, the play is charged not only with the lightning of the oncoming storm, but with sexuality and its inherent dangers. Marcus, for example, is attracted to the predatory Shua, who tellingly refers to himself as "Daddy" (a significant metaphor in need of exploration); and while nothing graphic is revealed, there was one tastefully handled scene that was so electric that one of the audience members audibly gasped.

Director Dennis Darling has created a riveting, economical production, and the cast is uniformly excellent. At the center of it all, young Cameron Yates offers an impassioned, versatile performance. (I like the way he subtly invokes "school girl" giddiness when he is around testerone and the way he naturally meshes with his soulmates "Osah" [an empathetic Myeasha Williams] and "Shaunta" [a sassy and sensible Hannaan Ester].) Through May 8. Photo from Hattiloo Theatre program.

Related Articles View More Memphis Stories

From This Author - Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)