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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
In the Red and Brown Water

"I been in love with your light and your sad eyes. And I got this home inside me, I know I do. "— Ogun to Oya
In the Red and BrownWater
Shirley Jo Finney's shimmering production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's shattering play is a work of theater art. The spell-binder connects you simultaneously to ancient rites of storytelling and the contemporary circumstances of a young African-American woman's diminishing opportunities.

McCraney's poetic text leaves room for buoyant movement and music. Their warmth complements such distancing devices as having actors speak stage directions, describing their character's actions in the third person.

Throughout, McCraney and Finney cultivate a bountiful balance. In the play and prsentation, contrasting tones of upset and optimism alternately bob to the surface. Frederica Nascimento's airy stage design is dominated by rippling panels of light wood. The varied elements cohere wondrously, creating a final tidal wave of emotion.

The story begins as fairy tale and ends as nightmare. Oya (Diarra Kilpatrick) lives in the projects on the Louisiana Delta. The fastest runner in her high school, she's offered a ticket out via a scholarship to state college. Oya decides instead to care for her ailing mother, Mama Mojo (Peggy A. Blow). After her mother dies, Oya reapplies to school, but finds her place has been filled.

Her best shot at advancement gone, Oya's life shuffles in place. She surrenders to the silky charms of Shango (Gilbert Glenn Brown). After the smooth mover joins the military, Oya settles for the sweet Ogun (Dorian Christian Baucum).

Unsuccessful at conceiving a child with Ogun, she renews her relationship with the recently returned Shango, only to discover he's already impregnated another woman. At this point, Oya's life starts to slide backwards, as she grows increasingly distraught.

The play's events may thrum towards the downbeat, but they are delivered by a vivacious cast that glories in performing. As Oya, Kilpatrick is a stunner. So many young actors try to drum up drama by tensing, pausing, and intermittently unleashing torrents of energy. Ms. Kilpatrick proves much more effective by doing the opposite. Like the best athletes, she relies on the fluid line of her breath. This allows her to shift intentions with ease and speed.

She's the steady heartbeat at the core of a beautifully integrated ten member ensemble. Together, they give a sense of community that accepts and undermines in equal measure. McCraney showers his empathy most on Oya's best friend Elegba, a poetic bisexual played by the adorable Theodore Perkins. But everyone - the actors, designers, the choreographer - gets his or her moment in the sun.

Last week, the LA Drama Critics Circle bestowed its award for best season on the Fountain Theatre. This production provides all the evidence necessary to prove the honor's merit. In the Red and Brown Water is essential viewing. McCraney may be inspired by the ancient myths of the West African Yoruba people and the argot of the contemporary South, but he's marking a territory all his own. Heartwarming and harrowing, it contains multitudes.

Editor's Note: This was part 1 of a trilogy and was presented as a marathon production at New York's Public Theater in 2009. To read the review of that event go here.

In the Red and Brown Water
by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Shirley Jo Finney

Cast: Dorian Christian Baucum (Ogun), Peggy Blow (Mama Mojo), Gilbert Glenn Brown (Shango), Justin Chu Cary (The Egungun), Diarra Kilpatrick (Oya), Stephen Marshall (O Li Roon), Simone Missick (Shun), Iona Morris (Aunt Elegua), Theodore Perkins (Elegba), Maya Lynne Robinson (Nia)
Choreographer: Ameenah Kaplan
Set Design: Frederica Nascimento
Lighting Design: Jose Lopez
Costume Design: Naila Aladdin Sanders
Composer/Sound Design: Peter Bayne
Prop Design: Misty Carlisle
Vocal Direction: Brenda Lee Eager
Production Stage Manager: Shawna Voragen
The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. (323) 663-1525
Runs Thursday to Sunday through February 24
Running time: Two hours and ten minutes including intermission
Reviewed by Jon Magaril
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