Portland Playhouse at home and happy: ‘In the Red and Brown Water’

Portland Playhouse returned home Saturday night for the opening of “In the Red and Brown Water,” the first part of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother Sister Plays” trilogy, and goodness gracious it felt good to be back home. In the intimate confines of the made-over church on Northeast Prescott St., the audience could draw near the pulsing light of McCraney’s poetic, mythic play and the actors could keep the rhythms throbbing and connections direct and strong.

Before the season began, this is exactly how I had hoped August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” would be, this immediate and close, this sharing of a common purpose. Those plays suffered other fates, though, when the company had to leave the church while it appealed a decision by the City to evict them from the space for violating a zoning ordinance, a decision that was utterly unnecessary was indeed overturned by City Council.

The move and the appeal ate up scarce Portland Playhouse resources, and at this point, the City owes the company an apology and a nice fat check as compensation. Seriously. But money isn’t adequate compensation, really, and the whole affair makes me angrier the more I think about it. Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is in charge of the Bureau of Development Services, and its Director, Paul L. Scarlett, should have stepped in and done the right thing from the beginning,instead of forcing the company to go through the appeal process, and I think the compensation due Portland Playhouse should come directly out of their fat paychecks.  You thought you were protecting us from a theater company?

But back to the play!

On the face of it “In the Red and Brown Water” is a simple, naturalistic story of a young African American woman, Oya (Ramona Lisa) in the Louisiana projects, who loses her track scholarships when her mother develops a fatal illness, fancies the wrong fellow (who leaves town for the army), hooks up with a decent guy she doesn’t love, finds herself attracted to the wrong guy again and… well, let’s just leave it at that.

Her love life is complicated by her desire to have a child, and it starts to take over her life, imposing a logic of its own that ends in a darkly beautiful, poetic gesture that makes complete sense within the play but outside it, not so much.

But this is a stark distillation of the ebb and flow of “In the Red and Brown Water,” which is wonderful for a simple theatricality and characterization that leads us to the complex territory of myth, beyond common sense and lost scholarships and bad boyfriends. McCraney’s play is  sensual, meaning that it sings and dances and touches, and also very sexual, frank about the desires of its characters, who are equally frank in their talk about various practices. And it uses the senses to represent the effects of a symbolic world with signs and operations all its own.

The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney at Portland Playhouse from Portland Playhouse on Vimeo.

I loved the language of the play, street language heightened a bit mostly but also including stage directions within it! Before he actually does it onstage, Shango (Damian Thompson) says, “He curls his fingers, he caresses,” for example, and Elegba (Brian Demar Jones) says of himself, “He enters like the moon eclipsing the sun.” We watch them so closely after that, the way Shango (the bad boyfriend, maybe) touches Oya so gently and the way she keels over into another world when he does; the way, Elegba drifts through a scene; the way Oya smiles (and Lisa has the most wonderful of smiles, it must be said).

Elegba is the wild card here, as he will be in the succeeding plays, which open at Portland Playhouse in tandem on April 19, a young man who seems “touched,” unfixed, childlike and petulant, but also connected to something mysterious. Jones, tall and a little gangly, gets him perfectly, gets the music of him (he sings beautifully) and the movement. Thompson is his opposite, definite and hard around the edges and clear about his desire, and yes, a soldier. Ogun (Bobby Bermea) is the third man in Oya’s life, the hard-working man who adores her but can’t transport her to unearthly realms.

Oya has female companionship, too, (Jocelyn Seid, Jennifer Lanier) and rivals (notably Lava Alapai), and there’s a subplot that involves Elegba, but it intersects with Oya’s story, which really is dead center throughout the play. That means that Lisa is also dead center and her expressive clarity and commitment keep us hooked into the story and the extravagant gesture at the end.

Tarell Alvin McCraney/Photo by Greg Funnell courtesy
the McCarter Theatre

The production of “In the Red and Brown Water,” directed by Victor Mack, is delicious in its simplicity, one step that leads to a higher box that functions as a porch, a backdrop that is painted abstractly, like camouflage, an attractive company of actors, who sing and move and speak in street level voices. It’s part of the genius of the play that they gather and dissipate so organically, these actors, but Mack has given shape and rhythm to the action and it pulses steadily throughout in this production.

There are some rough edges, specifically a few singing voices that aren’t  stage-worthy (though some are beautiful), and maybe the production could be even more musical somehow. A production at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey used drums, which I imagine is a nice touch. But this play in this space directed this way makes such great sense that I’m quibbling a bit, perhaps.

“In the Red and Brown Water” makes me want to see the rest of the trilogy and see more of McCraney’s work, though he’s such a young playwright, there’s not much more to see, most notably “Wig Out!,” set in two competing drag clubs, and “The Breach,” about the Katrina, which he co-wrote with two other playwrights. As Randy Gener points out in a long and interesting article about him for the Theatre Communications Group, McRaney, who is just 31, is just getting started.

“In the Red and Brown Water” is a great homecoming play for Portland Playhouse. The most moving public testimony at the appeal before City Council described the company’s importance  as a center for community discussion about race in a neighborhood that has been central to the city’s sad racial history. If we are going to have a richer understanding and maybe even some healing around that history and around this present, it will be at least partly because of plays like “In the Red and Brown Water” and theater companies like Portland Playhouse. The city needs Portland Playhouse right where it is.

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