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In the Red & Brown Reveals Intriguing Murky Depths

Tribe Sankofa performs In the Red and Brown Water

Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water is a play built on myth and mysticism though not divorced from a contemporary reality. Its arrival on the Jamaican stage comes at the hands of Fabian Thomas (director) and Tribe Sankofa. The results are interesting, a word which rests easily at the crossroads of all that is right and wrong with the production.

McCraney’s script is an intriguing one, but it is also a mammoth task to adequately stage. Its plot is straight forward but its structure and style allows for a multiplicity of meanings. Though Sankofa enjoys some success, there remain gaping emotional holes in the story as the cast, though generally competent, is neither strong enough and/or well-directed enough to deliver the depth required to make this production sing.

In the Red and Brown Water is the story of Oya, a young girl living in the projects in the Louisiana Bayou. A local track star, she appears to have amazing possibilities ahead until her mother falls ill and she defers her scholarship to look after her instead. This deferral leads to a dead end and Oya finds herself unable to fill the void left by either her mother or her dreams of running. A woman once able to run like the wind, she is brought to a grinding halt.

Susie Braham and Shanique Brown
McCraney explores contemporary black life in the Southern United States, the limited opportunities, the prominence of procreation as a symbol of worth,  sex and sexuality. In many ways, the characters are stereotypes, but in re-imagining them as orishas McCraney refashions them into archetypes. The characters are not merely named after Yoruban gods, they embody them. So, when not a part of the plot, each character becomes a member of the pantheon of gods they are named after, watching the mortals play out their lives. Additionally, he creates an intriguing meta-play by having the actors call out their stage directions before performing them suggesting that life, like the play, is just a performance.

Thomas attempts to symbolize the duality, by painting half the face of each characters with symbols representing traits of their deity. Thomas also combines his skills with those of Marlon Williams to provide lighting to help the plays mystical sensibilities.

 Alas, the costuming decisions dampens the duality, resting on a cliched Afrocentric aesthetic instead of allowing the contrast between ancient gods and contemporary mortals to clang against each other. The play is also robbed of much of its potential because the task of being gods, of oozing the elemental self is beyond the capacity of the cast, even its stronger members.

Sean Bennett and Ramone GordonShanique Brown does a commendable job as Oya. Brown has benefited from a growing string of noteworthy roles. Unfortunately, she is not imbue Oya with the internal agony the denial of self and worth as her world gets shattered and all her dreams fail to materialize.

For half the production, Hanief Lallo sticks out like a backwards bent forefinger, unable to convincingly convey the wicked and childlike Legba. He is physically too tall and his performance barely adequate. The role requires comedic strength, and an ability to convey “delight and wickedness”. When Lallo tries, he tends to end up over-acting.

Sean Bennett’s rendition of Ogun Size leaves much to be desired. The character demanded someone with a quiet yet commanding presence which he does not carry. In a similar vein, Ramone Gordon is unable to tap into the Shango’s nature as a god of thunder, managing only to bring just enough sex appeal to be believable.

Yet, despite these challenges, the production is certainly worth seeing as one mines its murky depths for intriguing fare.

In The Red and Brown Water is currently playing at The Pantry Playhouse, New Kingston.