The Alliance Hertz Stage's world premiere of In the Red and Brown Water takes place in the African-American projects in the small town of San Pere, La. Fortunately, almost none of the actors affect regional accents, which can be massively distracting.
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney gives the fine cast plenty of other challenges in his stylistically bold tale, such as having them speak their own stage directions. For instance, the young protagonist Oya (Kianné Muschett) at one point warmly says the line, "Oya laughs at her crazy mama," conveying the daughter's love for her mother. The eccentric gimmick functions like asides to the audience and succeeds beyond expectations, much like the play overall. The winning script of the Alliance's annual Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, In the Red and Brown Water presents poetic passages and striking images that confirm McCraney as a new talent to be reckoned with.
Oya grapples with two dilemmas that could seem like clichés from a less imaginative writer. First, the budding athlete must choose between a track scholarship and staying with her ailing mother (Chinái J. Hardy), then she wavers between a passionate lover (Rodrick Covington) and a reliable one (Andre Holland) in a community where teens seem to prize getting pregnant out of wedlock. The situations can seem almost tragically familiar, but McCraney brings out their elemental qualities, making the action feel as timeless as a classical Greek text.
Some of the imagery might be even weirder than the Alliance intends. Jon Michael Hill plays Elegba, a candy-obsessed youngster who gradually grows up and delights in the possibilities of sexuality. It's strange to see Hill play the character as a little boy when the actor has biceps worthy of Hercules. Between Elegba's earthy humor, angelic singing voice and moonlike symbolism, the figure seems less like a real person than Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Full of stark shadows, musical interludes and water symbolism (both real and pantomimed), the production's avant-garde approach could misfire badly in the wrong hands. Director Tina Landau reveals a masterful vision for the show that brings out every emotional nuance and seizes on every chance for muscular staging.
It's not easy to unpack all of the script's implications, particularly given a climactic act of violence that seems to lack motivation. Instead, the best way to appreciate In the Red and Brown Water is to let it flow over you.