(Review by Andrew Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)
Tarell Alvin McRaney’s In the Red and Brown Water is a relatively recent text by a groundbreaking playwright that explores issues of contemporary blackness through lyricism and motion. The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Theatre and Dance’s new production of the show—running through Oct 16 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre—brings all of those aspects of the play to the forefront in a performance filled with both motion and emotion.
In the Red and Brown Water is the story of Oya, a promising teen athlete growing up in urban Louisiana whose life is derailed by the sudden death of her mother. The play explores Oya’s growth from girl to woman, as she deals with her mother’s passing, the loss of an important scholarship, and the pitched woo of several potential suitors.
There is a huge amount going on in this play, both on the surface and in the many layers beneath. Much of that gets expressed directly on the stage, through characters declaring stage directions and through stylized movement both by the characters and a cadre of talented dancers who provide a symbolic backdrop at key moments in the play. Chian-Ann Lu’s lighting and Lacey Erb’s projections also do a great deal of this symbolist work, plumbing the emotional depths of the story in a way that works in tandem with the young cast.
The headliner of that cast is Christian Henley, as Oya, who is on stage for almost the entirety of the two-hour production. As a result, we see her dramatic transformations take place directly in front of us, as she reveals the textured depths of feeling—both good and bad—that drive Oya.
However, In the Red and Brown Water is also an ensemble piece, as various men and women rotate in and out of Oya’s life. Amongst the standouts are Keith Machekanyanga, as Shango, who is charming, dangerous, and ultimately heartbreaking; Daniel West, as Ogun, whose quiet dignity masks raging insecurity; Nyles Washington, as Elegba, who transforms throughout the play from hilarious comedic foil to luminescent mystery; and Rama Tchuente, as Aunt Elegua, whose comedic sass is matched only by her steely strength.
Co-directors Charles O. Anderson and Robert Ramirez have done an excellent job taking a text full of linguistic lyricism and explicit physical motion and turning it into a performance full of dance and music (both ecstatic and ritualized), poetry, and the sorrow of loss.
In the Red and Brown Water is not an easy text to digest, and it raises many important questions. UT’s production asks those questions and resists the urge to neatly answer them, allowing the play to exist as a dance with the audience that continues long into the night, well after the show is done.