The first time director Scot Reese saw Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water,” the head of the theater performance cluster at the University of Maryland thought it would be a great show for his young actors.
“It’s a perfect fit for students,” Reese says. “It’s written by a young playwright and it’s about a young woman.”
Reese and Alvin Mayes, who is a dance instructor in the theater department at the university, are co-directing a production of “In the Red and Brown Water,” opening Friday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
“In the Red and Brown Water” is the first in a trilogy of plays called the Brother/Sister trilogy, written by McCraney, a Yale School of Drama graduate. McCraney was just 25 when he wrote the first installment.
According to Reese, what is perhaps more impressive than the fact that McCraney wrote a trilogy before his 30 birthday is the complex style in which the trilogy was written.
“In the Red and Brown Water” is a coming-of-age tale about Oya (Adriyah Young), a teenage sprinter looking for a way out of her Louisiana Bayou housing project. A track scholarship seems to be her ticket out of the neighborhood and into college, until her mother is diagnosed with cancer. After her mother’s death, Oya is faced with decisions about faith and identity.
The play draws on folk tales, contemporary poets and Yoruba mythology. The Yoruban people are an ethnic group from West Africa; in Yoruba mythology, Oya is the goddess of the Niger River and the deity of the wind.
“For my character, the wind is really important,” Young says. “She is supposed to be related to the wind, the weather.”
A Gaithersburg native, Young is a senior theater and studio art major at the University of Maryland and, like Reese, she says the young characters in “In the Red and Brown Water” make the play relevant for her and her fellow cast mates.
“The characters are close in age to us,” Young says. “The internal struggle ... that was relatable. ... They are real people dealing with real things.”
While the characters certainly resemble real people and real struggles, Reese says like Oya, every character in the show actually is based on Yoruban gods, meant to represent a certain archetype.
“Mr. McCraney wrote it and wanted it to be like people in your life,” Reese says.
“The characteristics of the gods are in the characters and in real people,” Young adds. “[McCraney] put them in a modern setting.”
In addition to the use of Yoruban mythology, “In the Red and Brown Water” also draws on a style called choreopoem, and other experimental effects.
Choreopoem was pioneered by playwright Ntozake Shange in her 1975 play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.” Tyler Perry directed a film adaptation of the play in 2010. The style combines dance and poetry, a pairing Reese says he felt well-equipped to handle.
“Having Alvin Mayes in the dance department, I thought this would be a beautiful collaboration,” Reese says.
McCraney also wrote the play’s stage directions to be spoken as dialogue, a style Reese says was difficult at first for the students to get used to.
“It was interesting to see actors auditioning for [the show] and saying, ‘Are we supposed to say that out loud?’” Reese laughs.
Reese says the tactic is used to help the actors develop a deeper connection with their audience.
While Young admits it was a challenge learning to speak the stage directions, she says she became more comfortable and even grew to understand why McCraney chose to write the script this way, as the rehearsal process went on.
“I think [McCraney] was trying to further connect the actor with the audience,“ Young says. “It’s almost like tuning in with the audience ... almost like a check-in.”
Playing the heroine is something new for Young.
“I’ve never played the protagonist who everyone roots for,” she says.
And just like the play itself, Young says she found much of Oya’s beauty in the character’s intricacies.
“She’s very complex,” Young says. “You think, ‘Oh, just the nice girl,’ but there are a bunch of layers that make her not just what you see.”