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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Public


  Brian Tyree Henry and Marc Damon Johnson/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s two-parter at the Public Theater – In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size & Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet – doesn’t really amount to one play, let alone a pair. Captivating as these scripts are, especially as interpreted by two finely attuned directors (Tina Landau and Robert O’Hara) and a uniformly superb cast, these glimpses of life in a Louisiana bayou sometime in “the distant present” are fragments, really, analogous to sketches done by a young artist of extraordinary promise. Although McCraney, at 29, has yet to construct the fully formed drama that will put him in a league with former mentor August Wilson, we’re privileged to sit in on his creative process. It’s a tribute both to his seemingly organic writing and to the actors who bring his words to life that we end up craving more of their company, even if these particular stories haven’t as yet fully coalesced.
At two scant, fast-moving hours, Part 1 is really only half a play – and the longer Part 2, while echoing themes and bringing back certain characters, makes little attempt to pick up the thread. We never do learn what becomes of Oya (radiant Kianné Muschett), a gifted young runner who, in Part 1, forfeits her dreams of athletic stardom once she’s waylaid by sexual desire. Oya’s downfall is the charismatic Shonga (self-assured Sterling K. Brown). Even after Oya settles for responsible but ho-hum Ogun Size (Marc Damon Johnson), a car mechanic as grounded as she is mercurial – the character names and traits echo Yoruban lore – she keeps jonesing for Shango, who represents the god of thunder and lightning. As her peppery, protective Aunt Elegua (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) observes, scrutinizing the transfixed Oya, “You got your fire back” – and an obsession of the sort that can only bode the worst.
The Brothers Size, which opens Part 2, pits the older Ogun, grown even more pragmatic – to the point of preachiness – against his more instant-gratification-minded younger brother, Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry), who has just been released from prison. (Part 1 presaged Oshoosi’s sticky fingers: as a child, he pilfered from the church offering box.) As Oshoosi chafes against Ogun’s in loco parentis hypervigilance, a childhood friend turned cellmate, Elegba (Andre Holland), makes what seems a selfless, beneficent gesture. Where Ogun kept Oshoosi on a short, pedestrian leash, Elegba hands him a car – which is tantamount to freedom, which in turn means a chance to make up for lost time pursuing tail. Is there any way this will end well? As Ogun, having already ceded a beloved young wife, faces further loss, Henry manages to make the ordeal primordial.
Marcus – the second part of Part 2 – is the least developed segment. Marcus, son of Elegba, now deceased (Holland slips down a generation), is 16 and struggling with his sexual orientation. He’s intent on finding out whether, as he increasingly wonders about himself, his father was likewise “sweet” (African-American slang for gay). The answer is standing right in front of us, clad in a baby-blue argyle sweater, so the suspense level is low: It seems we’ve sat and watched this trope before. This most fragmentary of fragments does, however, provide Brown – this time sporting a sunshine-yellow Kanga cap pulled low over his eyes – with another opportunity to play a player and exert his considerable sexual magnetism.
The staging for both parts is minimal to an extreme, such that the occasional physical effects – a downpour, for instance, presaging a hurricane – are all the more striking. The actors’ practice of reading their own stage directions (Shango states “he curls his fingers” every time he reaches to caress Oya’s ear, his signature move) never intrudes in the slightest. If anything, these interjections form a kinetic bridge to the audience, somehow suggesting participation on their parts.
Parts 1 and 2 will very likely leave you longing to see parts 3, 4, 5, ad infinitum – and maybe someday, with luck and persistence, the magnum opus that links them all together.

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