O Kendeda: In the Red and Brown Water 'graduates' with honors



Wednesday night’s world premiere of In the Red and Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney is the fourth Alliance Hertz Stage production of the winner of the annual Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition. And in my estimation, it's the competition's best discovery so far.

In 2005 the Kendeda Fund gave the Alliance Theatre $1.5 million to bankroll in perpetuity the new Graduate Playwriting Competition for attracting and developing new plays. The Kendeda winners so far have been Daphne Greaves’ Day of the Kings (2005), Kenneth Lin’s …” said Said (2006), Darren M. Canady’s False Creeds (2007) and now In the Red and Brown Water. Incidentally, Kendeda runner-up Love Jerry by Megan Gogerty deserves an asterisk in that list. In 2006 Actor's Express staged its world premiere, directed by Alliance associate artistic director Kent Gash, after discovering the play at the program.

All four of the plays produced at the Hertz Stage have proven to be massively ambitious -- I almost wonder if the competition rewards the playwrights' reach more than their grasp. The first three made bold examinations of history. Day of the Kings examined slave uprisings and switched gender roles in Cuba in the 1880s; ..., said Said drew on the terrorism, language and legacy of the French-Algerian War; and False Creeds used a supernatural scheme to evoke the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Melodramatic plot points undermined the first three shows, although Said proved the most impressive. Despite one or two contrivances too many, Lin demonstrated an intellectual scope nearly worthy of Tom Stoppard.

My review of In the Red and Brown Water comes next week -- I need a little more time to process the production's ideas and images. Compared to the Kendeda alumni, McCraney's play focuses less on the past than the present -- the program enigmatically calls it "the distant present" -- by focusing on a young woman's dilemmas involving family, sports, sex and love. Tina Landau vividly directs the play's avant-garde flourishes, which include the oddly compelling device of having characters speak their own stage directions, which adds a new level of psychological presentation. In the Red and Brown Water bears the influences of both the poet Federico García Lorca and the West African religion Yoruba, and proves to be the most risky yet the most rewarding of the Kendeda winners so far.

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