January 22, 2010 at 1:31 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
New Studio production imbues gritty realism with other-worldly magic

Raushanah Simmons, left, and Yaegel T. Welch in ‘In the Red and Brown Water,’ a gay-penned, gay-helmed, though hetero-themed play at Studio Theatre that tells of Oya (Simmons), a young athlete who passes on her chance to escape poverty. (Photo courtesy of Studio Theatre)

She may run like the wind, but not even Oya, the central character in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water” now at Studio Theatre, is fast enough to escape life’s pain.

The young, gay McCraney’s undeniably lyrical work begins with his tragic teenage heroine making a decision that will adversely affect the rest of her life. When offered a track scholarship, Oya (Raushanah Simmons) — despite knowing college is her ticket out of the Louisiana projects — declines, choosing instead to remain at home with her dying mother, Mama Moja (Denise Diggs). There’ll be other opportunities, Oya tells herself with tepid optimism.

There aren’t, so Oya turns her attention to men and making babies. She vacillates between two lovers: Ogun Size (Jahi A. Kearse), a stammering mechanic with family-man aspirations, and Shango (Yaegel T. Welch), a muscular, cocksure player-turned-soldier who’s uninterested in settling down. Despite her best efforts, Oya (named for a Yoruban nature goddess) is unable to conceive. Living in a world where teen pregnancies are celebrated, she feels particularly cheated and further alienated. This, combined with Shango impregnating a local girl, sends Oya into a spiral of despair.

“In the Red and Brown Water” is the newest of McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays,” a trilogy inspired by his own experiences. (“The Brothers Size,” another part of the trilogy, proved a hit for Studio in 2008). In creating his own uniquely charged theatrical world, the playwright draws on West African Yoruba myth, contemporary urban life, and classic drama — in this instance gay Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Yerma,” a tragedy whose heroine is also infertile. The result is both woefully accessible and dreamily removed, poetic, but also gritty.

McCraney’s characters speak their own stage directions (Oya says, “Oya laughs at her crazy mother” — pause — “You crazy.”). These clever third-person observations, in addition to being funny and illuminating, elevate the characters and their actions. In conjunction with the references to mythology, they add an epic quality to the usually unheralded lives lived out in government housing.

McCraney, who grew up in the projects of South Miami, knows his characters well. He writes compassionately of their triumphs and their failings. Marking time on her front porch, Oya explains her desire to have babies to her mischievous, bisexual pal Elegba (Mark Hairston), already a father himself at 16: “What else have we got to do? Sit around and watch the world?”

Though tall and lean, Simmons doesn’t really look like a track star nor (as the script calls for) is she particularly dark skinned, but it doesn’t matter. As the story unfolds, she reveals the humor, feisty temper, sense of decency, strength, vulnerability and desperation that make up Oya. As the rivals for Oya’s heart (and other parts), Kearse and Welch are both excellent. Among the 10-member cast, Shannon Alexandria Lillie Dorsey supplies a jolt of realness as sassy Shun, Shango’s soon-to-be baby mama.

Staged in the round by gay director Serge Seiden, the play’s finest moments are those involving Oya and her men. Unlike some of the production’s other more unwieldy scenes (including a storekeeper chasing an underage candy bar thief and a party in the project), these smaller, more intimate instances are revealing and seem most at home on Luciana Stecconi’s elegant set — a circular, concrete-looking platform outlined by a thin water-filled moat. It’s during these exchanges that we’re best able to see into Oya’s wounded heart.

‘In the Red and Brown Water’
Through Feb. 14
Studio Theatre
1501 14th Street, N.W.
$35 to $63

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