BWW Review: IN THE RED AND BROWN WATER Explores Community, Ritual, and Remembrance

Choices shape the direction of our lives. In the Red and Brown Water (written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Shirley Jo Finney) presents universal themes of choices, consequences, and the dissatisfaction that comes with the perceived failure to meet one's own (or one's culturally expected) potential. In McCraney's play about searching for individualism and acceptance within a community, Oya (Joré Aaron-Boughton), a talented young runner from the Louisiana bayou, is forced to make the agonizing decision between caring for her family and her prospective career in athletics. Oya chooses to forego running track in college to care for her ailing mother, a decision that contours her future--instead of a promising running career, Oya becomes a fixture in the bayou housing project where she was raised. Without clear direction toward a career or higher education, Oya tries to integrate into her local community, a population of Haitian, Brazilian, African Yoruba, and Cuban ancestry, all bred together over generations to create a complex and unique creole culture.

In the Red and Brown Water presents the consuming ambition of humanity: the search for purpose and satisfaction, both within oneself and through the relationships forged with other people. Oya desperately tries to fill the void of loneliness and the regret of her lost chances for athletic success with the distractions of day-to-day living. Oya has a torrid, destructive relationship with Shango (Rigoberto Sanchez), followed by a more sensible romance with the more temperate Ogun Size (Roberto Tolentino). The discontent of having given up her chance to run in college morphs into a dissatisfaction more applicable to her life in the bayou community: the frustration of not being able to conceive a child. Oya's peer group is busily producing offspring; an act lauded as an epitome of female importance. Oya's apparent barrenness becomes a source of malicious gossip amongst the community--there's a clear connection between a woman's purpose in the culture and the creation of the next generation, the imperative perpetuation of the community's cultural legacy. Childless and without career or education, Oya's usefulness in her community is called into question. Her dissatisfaction grows to a mania that culminates in a grotesque maneuver so appropriate it verges on perfection: Oya, unable to produce a child, something made from herself, instead gives her lover, Shango, a piece of herself that is available to offer.

Playwright McCraney considers theatre a device for communicating aspects of community, ritual, and remembrance. From a phenomenological standpoint, in which the audience understands and relates to the characters' experiences as direct representations of the structures of human existence, In the Red and Brown Water allows the audience to be emotionally involved in Oya's search for meaning. As McCraney says, "the audience and actor are one and all those people, though each seeing it slightly differently, are believing--following the same course and going on a journey together." The barrier between reality and art as a representation of reality is more permeable in the theatrical realm than it is in other artistic representations of life. The ability to see actual people onstage present veritable emotional expression allows the audience a personal connection to the players and the material, even if everyone in the audience experiences the story in a slightly different way. In Red and Brown Water, McCraney utilizes frequent character narration directed at the audience, which recalls the oral tradition of folklore, stories being told amongst a community created between cast and viewer, between storyteller and audience. Within the actual universe of the play, the community that exists is the company of players in the bayou: Oya's friends and family (and some less-than-friendly associates). Cultural variations aside, the inter-communal interactions in Red and Brown Water illustrate the ritual of living in community--the universal manner in which people manage their relationships and their personal claim to space in the world. McCraney describes ritual as creating something distant, yet present; customs and behaviors that hold cultures together with boundaries of collective understanding. Remembrance is also part of ritual; these traditions passed through generations have shaped our world cultures on microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. In the Red and Brown Water is a compelling look at these elements of the human experience.

I n the Red and Brown Water features talented young performers and a set that presents the mysteries of the bayou with bright light, vivid color, and the mesmerizing use of shadow. Performances were lively, intense, and entertaining; Shango (Sanchez) was beguiling and dangerous, though sly and sensual--a nice foil to the frustrated yet gentle Ogun (Tolentino), the third point in the love triangle formed around apex Oya, whose life in the bayou turns her from animated, ambitious runner to unfulfilled caged animal; Aaron-Boughton plays the role of Oya with the passion of a woman on the edge of hope, mired in the tedium of her chosen life.

Confusion, dissatisfaction, passion, and ambition run through the bayou with Oya as she searches for meaning after her chance for a life in athletics dissipates into the swamp. This brings me to Oya's aptitude for running: Oya chooses to take care of her ailing mother in lieu of a chance to run track in college. However, Oya's running is rarely mentioned after her choice to stay in the bayou cements the direction of the plot, and I ponder about the metaphorical meaning of her particular talent. Perhaps it was an easy plot point: Oya has to sacrifice something in order to stay in the bayou. I'd prefer that her identity as a runner was chosen specifically for it's metaphoric weight, but the meaning behind this choice is somewhat muddled. If abandoning her passion for running is a reference to her choice to refrain from running away from her birth community, then the metaphor is overt and simple, and doesn't serve to deepen characterization or add to dramatic tension. If the only purpose in giving Oya a talent that could catapult her out of the bayou is only to force the decision to sacrifice it, the significance of her talent could be less specific in order to call focus to the sacrifice rather than the talent itself. Otherwise, the talent should be more noteworthy, with a metaphoric weight that can be utilized to layer meaning throughout the rest of the production. Is giving Oya the gift of running prowess, only to take away its significance, the strongest symbolic choice for the play? Alas, this is a discussion to be continued over a Manhattan. Go see UCSB's production of In the Red and Brown Water, and then join me for drinks and debate.

In the Red and Brown Water

By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Shirley Jo Finney

Feb 27-28, Mar 5-7 @8PM, Mar1 @2PM

UCSB Hatlen Theater

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From This Author Maggie Yates