The gods and goddesses of the West African Yoruba people are transformed into African-Americans living in the projects of San Pere, Louisiana in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s award-winning In The Red And Brown Water, now getting an impressive Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain Theatre.

 Oya, goddess of the Niger River, wind, and storms, takes human form as high school track star Oya (Diarra Kilpatrick), for whom running is as essential to life as breathing is to the rest of us. Only her mother’s terminal illness prevents Oya from accepting a nearby state university’s offer of a full athletic scholarship, and when that offer is rescinded a year later, Oya’s dreams become more personal—to find love and give birth, with the emphasis on the latter.

In a love-storytelling devise as old as time, McCraney gives Oya a choice between the sweet, sincere, utterly lovestruck Ogun (Dorian Christian Baucum) and the dangerously hot bad boy Shango (Gilbert Glenn Brown), a man whose roving eye Oya seems more than happy to overlook. Add to that the sly and sassy Elegba (Theodore Perkins), a teenager whose sexy six-foot frame belies his nickname “L’il Elegba” (and who may have as much of an eye for the menfolk as for the ladies) and you have a foursome with whom Oprah would have a field day were they her guests.

 Other characters include Oya’s foxy but sadly short-lived Mama Mojo (Peggy A. Blow), man-hunting Louisiana MILF Aunt Elegua (Iona Morris), local flirts and gossips Nia and Shun (Maya Lynne Robinson and Simone Missick), O Li Run (Stephen Marshall), the white shopkeeper with whom L’il Elegba has one of his frequent run-ins, and the DJ known as The Egungun (Justin Chu Cary).

Though In The Red And Brown Water’s plot ends up relatively wispy for a two-act play, playwright McCraney and director Shirley Jo Finney have theatrical tricks up their sleeves. These bits of magic involve both song and dance, so much so that at times the Fountain Theatre production seems almost as much a musical as The Celebration’s The Color Purple.

 Playwright McCraney’s blend of poetic speech and street talk didn’t always work for this reviewer, nor did the integration of stage directions into dialog (as when Oya tells us “Oya laughs at her crazy mother” before laughing and telling her mom “You crazy”).  Still, quibbles aside, any true lover of original, inventive, risk-taking theater will not want to miss this latest Fountain Theatre gem.

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Kilpatrick’s breathtakingly beautiful performance as Oya. Whether interacting with the men who pursue her (or whom she pursues), or performing choreographer Ameenah Kaplan’s dance moves with graceful athleticism, or simply reciting the letter in which Oya turns down her athletic scholarship, tears brimming in gorgeously expressive eyes, Kilpatrick is the lynchpin capable of transforming In The Red And Brown Water into something extraordinary.

Baucum, Blow, Brown, Cary, Marshall, Missick, Morris, Perkins, and Robinson make up one of the most gifted ensembles in town in roles that reveal the kind of triple-threat talents usually only seen on Broadway or regional musical theater stages.

In addition to choreographer Kaplan (coincidentally—or not—the dance whiz behind The Color Purple), In The Red And Brown Water benefits greatly from sound designer Peter Bayne’s original music score and Brenda Lee Eager’s vocal direction, suggesting that this belated L.A. premiere may well be the most stunningly, musically theatrical McCraney’s play has received so far.

 Frederica Nascimento’s gorgeous set (whose upstage wood panels suggest the rippling waters of the play’s title) makes the Fountain’s small stage seem positively expansive, and has been vividly lit by lighting designer José Lopez. Not surprisingly, the production’s colorful, African-pattered costumes are the creation of Naila Aladdin Sanders, another Color Purple vet and frequent Fountain contributor. Misty Carlisle’s props, a number of which serve as makeshift percussion instruments, complete a superb design package. Dialect coach JB Blanc deserves considerable credit for the cast’s authentic-sounding Louisiana accents.

Shawna Voragen is production stage manager, Terri Roberts assistant stage manager, and Scott Tuomey technical director. In The Red And Brown Water is produced by Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor.

Four years is far too long a wait for In The Red And Brown Water to arrive in Los Angeles. (Blame those literary agents and their cluelessness to our brilliant theater scene.) Hopefully word of this outstanding production will lessen the delay for McCraney’s other two Brother/Sister Plays to make it to our fair city.

Though the playwright’s blend of poetry, myth, and urban reality can be a bit “out there” for more traditional playgoers, In The Red And Brown Water at the Fountain is Los Angeles theater at its best, a production in which performance, direction, and design combine to make for something quite memorable indeed.

The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 16, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

Comments are closed.