First performed at the Young Vic on Thursday 2nd October 2008
In the Red and Brown Water
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY
‘The thrilling sound, the beautiful music of a new voice.’
The New York Times
Tarell Alvin McCraney was born on 17th October 1980 in a town called Liberty City, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Miami, Florida. His father’s family originated from the Caribbean and his mother’s from Georgia. His mother died a few years ago after battling an addiction to drugs. He resisted his parents’ urges to study as a doctor or lawyer, instead focussing on the arts.
He studied at the New World School of the Arts High School where he excelled as an actor, being awarded both the Dean’s Award for Theatre and the Exemplary Artist Award. He then attended DePaul University where he graduated in 2003 from the Theatre School with a BFA [equivalent to a British BA] in Acting. The following year was spent working as an actor for British director Peter Brook’s company, the Centre Internationale de Recherche Théâtrale. Other directors he has acted for include David Cromer, Tina Landau (Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble), and BJ Jones, who directed him in the Chicago premiere of Joe Penhall’s award-winning Blue/Orange.
McCraney then decided to continue his education at the Yale School of Drama in Connecticut on the MFA Playwriting course, graduating in 2007. His work to date includes Without/Sin, A Lone, the Brother/Sister trilogy (consisting of In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet), Run, Mourner, Run, The Breach, and Wig Out! A play on the KIDZ (which opens at the Royal Court, London later this year).
In August 2007, The Breach, co-written with Catherine Filloux and Joe Sutton, opened at the Southern Rep Theatre in New Orleans to mark the two year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It took two years to write. McCraney stated:
“The piece was created so that nationally we could keep drawing attention back to the fact that it was not a natural disaster, it was truly man-made. The breaches in the levees did not come from `the storm’ in itself. The waters flooding the bayous broke levees that were crumbling and had been long ago abandoned by the people who were supposed to have upkeep on them. So the piece is to draw attention to the fact they’re a long way from recovery.”
A success with both critics and the New Orleans’ audience, the play was subsequently performed at the Seattle Rep Theatre.
McCraney has been named the International Writer in Residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2008 to 2010, and will also continue his seven-year residency at New Dramatist Centre in New York. The Brothers Size was such a success at the Young Vic last year – nominated for an Olivier Award - that it has been brought back to the Maria Theatre whilst In the Red and Brown Water plays in the main auditorium. The Young Vic also owns the rights to produce the third part of the trilogy, Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet.
Cole Porter Playwriting Award Yale School of Drama
2007 Kendeda Award Alliance Theatre, Atlanta
2007 Paula Vogel Playwriting Award Vineyard Theatre, NY
2007 Whiting Writer’s Award Giles Whiting Foundation, NY
“I’ve been a maker of dramatic plays basically all my life. I still haven’t stopped playing make-believe. Sometimes I make up stories in my head about people I have never met. I imagine what they do in the morning, what their dreams are like, what their favourite colours might be…”
McCraney has often said that he was first attracted to dance rather than theatre, and indeed would be a contemporary dancer if he was not a writer. Inspired originally by the street dances he watched as a child during parades in Miami, he was then introduced to the work of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at the age of thirteen. The company, like McCraney, promotes the uniqueness of the African-American experience. Their famous production Revelations, for which Ailey drew on his cultural heritage of the blues, spirituals and gospel, has become the company’s signature show and is still performed up to three hundred times a year. The company had a profound effect on McCraney who is still inclined to watch more dance than he does theatre:
“I try to write how I see dance – in moves, in body language that doesn’t lie, in syncopation. Barely anything in the space but bodies that tell you all the story that you need.”
Also in 1993, the teenage McCraney performed with the D Projects Theatre Company in Miami under the guidance of Teo Castellanos. This improvisation troupe fuses world cultures, religion, and music, examining social issues through performance. McCraney acted in a project which aimed to spread an awareness of HIV by performing in juvenile detention centres. The experience clearly had a profound effect on the young artist:
“We were on stage in front of these women at a half way house. We were performing these monologues we had written about our own lives, about witnessing our mothers on drugs, life in our own communities, and they began to cry and say `you look like our children. We don’t want our children ever to have to endure what you’re doing’.”
The subject matter clearly resonated with McCraney; many of the artists he acknowledges as inspiring his work either died of AIDS or were AIDS campaigners, (including Alvin Ailey). For example, McCraney cites Reinaldo Arenas as an important figure in his creative development. Arenas was a novelist, poet, and playwright who lived and worked in Cuba. Politically active and openly gay, he was imprisoned in 1973 but continued to write and produced a significant body of work, including five novels collectively titled Pentagonia which explored post-revolutionary life in Cuba. He committed suicide in 1990 in New York after battling AIDS. Another influence was Essex Hemphill, an African American poet and activist who explored equality and rights for gay men. His work tackled issues such as relationships between gay black and non-black men, and the sexual objectification of black men in white culture. He died in 1995 of AIDS-related complications.
McCraney also admires the way the British combine art and politics, praising Caryl Churchill in particular. His own plays address socio-political issues; he has frequently pledged that he writes to give the voiceless a voice, for those on the fringes and the margins, saying of his experience with Project D: “I knew in that moment: theatre can affect lives”.
Perhaps the greatest individual influence on McCraney’s work is the British theatre director Peter Brook whom he first met as an actor:
“I like the way the work is. It’s very honest... There’s nothing on stage to protect you or hide behind. There’s no set, there’s no artifice. There are only the actors and their audience and the words. They have to create everything that you need which is the most exciting, the most thrilling kind of theatre but it’s also very difficult in an age where we’re used to carousels spinning, light shows and spectacular spectacles.”
Brook directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company during the 1960’s. Whilst there he studied the work of theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud, leading to the Theatre of Cruelty Season which helped shape Brook’s subsequent work and influenced a generation of theatre practitioners. In 1970 he founded the International Centre for Theatre Research, a multinational company of actors, dancers, and musicians which travelled the world observing international theatre practice. His influential book, The Empty Space, famously begins:
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
Brook’s practice centres on removing all the artifice that has grown around the art form, and instead focusing on the essential relationship between the performer and audience. His 1974 production of Shakespeare’s Timons of Athens began with the actors sat on cushions at the audiences’ feet simply telling the story, prompting critic Michael Billington to note that it made the audience re-examine what an act of theatre actually was, arriving at the conclusion that it is fundamentally the communication of a story to a group of people gathered as closely as possible around a company of actors. In the Young Vic’s Autumn 2007 production of The Brothers Size the audience sat in-the-round (on all sides of the stage), the performance beginning with the actor playing Elegba drawing out a chalk circle on the floor to define the stage area.
McCraney also writes that his characters should speak the stage directions aloud, partly to invite the audience to be complicit in the story they are being told, and partly to keep them alert and engaged. This latter function is now generally associated with theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht’s (1898 – 1956) Alienation Effect; however as McCraney himself has commented, the technique is as old as theatre itself and is fundamental to traditional African theatre.
Brook, McCraney, and African theatre are also stylistically linked by the emphasis placed on telling the story as efficiently and explicitly as possible. African theatre, often called Ritual theatre because of the close cultural links between the arts and religion, is driven orally. Call and response patterns are frequently used as a way to draw the audience into verbal participation and rhythmic chanting often features. Rhythm is a fundamental component of McCraney’s writing:
“Using a lot of polyrhythms [simultaneous contrasting rhythms]... I began to write this play [The Brothers Size], which has three men, all speaking rhythmically throughout. Some of the piece is written in verse, some in prose, just to display that rhythm.”
The writer believes that it’s these rhythms that make his work universal:
“We did a workshop the other day with the Theatre Royal in Plymouth with young people, and they said they read the play and ‘we really understand it’. There’s a rhythm to it. And I said to myself: ‘How does that keep happening?’ No matter where I go round the world, even if people say they don’t understand the rhythm of how it’s supposed to go, they feel the rhythm.”
Drums are frequently used in African theatre as they can imitate the tonal patterns of African speech, communicating the story on another level, and McCraney has cited the use of drums in invocations as having an impact on him as a child. African languages are tonal which means that words are distinguished by varying pitch and tone. (For example the word ‘owo’ in Yoruba can mean ‘broom’, ‘hand’ or ‘respect’ depending on where the word is pitched; past tense can also be indicated by saying the same word at a different pitch). McCraney often uses this vocal lyricism which is a distinguishing element of African theatre. For example in the prologue of In the Red and Brown Water:
OYA : Oya... Oya...
MAMA MOJA: Holding her head.
OYA: Oya Gal...
SHUN: Laying up somewhere.
MAMA MOJA: Staring out somewhere.
MAMA MOJA, AUNT ELEGUA & SHUN: Somewhere...
MAMA MOJA: Lord God...
He also uses vocal techniques such as humming and moaning to create atmosphere. At the start of the prologue, McCraney has written:
‘Oya is left center alone.
She lies down on the ground holds her head
And stares at the sky. Her lines are said from this position like a chant or moan.
The others continue upstage, speaking their lines, the men still humming.
Until finally they stand still.
The cast glow like a pantheon of deities, ending the prologue.’
The syncopations and polyrhythms used in African music fed into the creation of the jazz movement which was founded amongst the African American communities of the Southern states where McCraney was born and where his plays are located. Walter Meierjohann, director of the Young Vic’s production, has brought on board New Orleans jazz trumpeter Abram Wilson to compose music, which he plays live on stage. McCraney himself has described In the Red and Brown Water as “a very jazz type piece”, acknowledging the cultural cross-fertilisation at the root of his writing:
“In America we may try to deny that we’re a hodge podge of different cultures and influences but as a person growing up in America in a place like Miami, I’m filled with experiences from bhutto training to suzuki training to Stanislavski but also tons of African music, African dance. The emergence of hip-hop is nothing but fragments of old music turned into new music and then lyrically poeticised over.”
Specifically, In the Red and Brown Water was inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s play Yerma. This play, along with Blood Wedding and The House of Bernada Alba, belong to Lorca’s Rural trilogy. All three plays explore the social and sexual restrictions placed on women in rural Spain where the author lived in the early twentieth century. Yerma depicts a woman’s desire for a child to conform to social normality; pitted against an uninterested, frugal husband, she eventually kills him. The parallels between McCraney and Lorca go beyond the obvious similarities which exist in the motivation of their protagonists as both write with a sense of passion, creating characters which are godlike in their emotional range and representing a deep understanding of the human condition.
3. THE BROTHER/SISTER TRILOGY The trilogy consists of In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. Although McCraney wrote The Brothers Size first, it actually comes second in the chronology of the work. The plays were written over three years whilst McCraney was studying at Yale and he has described them as a triptych, a word which refers to three painted or carved panels, hinged together.
“They are separate plays that come together as a trilogy; I don’t know if it’s even safe to call it a trilogy. Each play began a different way – inspired by my brothers and sisters and all of them are dedicated to them. They are about interconnected relationships and the complexities of those.”
In the Red and Brown Water focuses on Oya, an athlete with great potential who sacrifices her ambition in order to remain with her dying Mother. Ogun is in love with Oya, but she cannot resist the advances of his friend Shango. After learning that Elegba has fathered a child, Oya realises she herself is barren. She then discovers that Shango has impregnated a local girl, Shun. With no career prospects, and unable to meet the social expectation that a woman’s primary role is to be a mother, Oya descends into madness and cuts off her ear to prove her love for Shango.
In The Brothers Size, set a few years later, we meet Ogun’s brother Oshoosi who has recently been in prison with Elegba. Ogun does not want his younger brother to go back to prison and encourages him to find work. However, the local sheriff discovers Elegba’s cocaine in Oshoosi’s car. Ogun forces his brother to run away, saying that he will deny his brothers existence when the law arrives, Oshoosi departs leaving Ogun alone.
Marcus, Or the Secret of Sweet is set several years in the future and introduces Elegba’s son, Marcus. Elegba himself has died and Marcus seeks to discover what similarities he has with his father. He meets Shua, a young man who has just moved into the area, who forces him to explore his own sexuality.
McCraney has said that his main aim with the trilogy was to “try and see how accessible I could make the theatre for people who feel like they aren’t welcome to the theatre all the time, who come to the theatre and see plays about kings and queens and people from Russia and so feel like theatre isn’t for them.” The writer believes that there are not enough plays or films written about the southern states, particularly about African Americans in these areas, and the work that does exist tends to focus on the negative elements of the society. Of Ogun and Oshoosi’s relationship in The Brothers Size McCraney questions: “How often do we see stories about brothers and how much they care for each other, especially when it’s black men? Usually it’s: ‘Oh, they must be rappers or gangsters’”. The fact that McCraney’s younger brother also only recently got out of prison throws light on the dynamic between Ogun and Oshoosi in his second play. He also believes that the media too often focus on the violence that exists in these cultures and not on the “bonds of friendship, brotherhood, and love”.
When contemplating the creation of the trilogy, McCraney knew that he wanted to draw upon the African American experience: “It would need to be layered with all that rich history we carry around with us every day. I didn’t want us to leave all that heritage at the door of the theatre... I wanted us to bring it in, and let it enthuse theatre in a new way.” The playwright wanted to use the oral tradition of Yoruba culture to generate a form of storytelling in the trilogy which could be both for, and about, the people he wanted to address. He was keen to explore these old stories in a new way: “For me it is always beautiful to use something ancient to create something new.” He has frequently stressed that this is not a new way of creating art however, referencing Shakespeare, jazz, and more recently hip hop, as forms that fuse the past and present to create something for the future.
4. YORUBA In the Red and Brown Water is based on a traditional Yoruba story which inspired McCraney when growing up. It was the central character of Oya which sparked the writer’s imagination:
“I remembered how strong she seemed in the story, even though she dealt with - and chose - some very rocky paths. Many of us can think of the women of our lives, and how many rocky paths they had to walk down, and how strong - even though they had to endure so much - they seemed. And that was important to me; to write a story about an African American woman in modern times, enduring mythic type, and almost profound, circumstances.”
Originating in Africa, Yoruba was first brought to America during the slave trade, and then later by Nigerian immigrants during the second half of the twentieth century. Yoruba is believed to be the largest existing religion to originate from Africa with an estimated one hundred million adherents worldwide. During the slave trade the Vatican issued an edict that all slaves must be converted to Catholicism, but the slaves managed to retain the essence of their belief by marrying the two religions. Central to Yoruban mythology is the worship of deities, which echoes the worship of saints in Catholicism, and this assisted the slaves in disguising their continued worship of their native religion. This cross-fertilisation led to Yoruba developing into different hybrids in the various countries where the slaves settled; predominantly Sanitaria in Cuba, Voodoo in Haiti, and Condumblay in Brazil. McCraney has also noted the similarities between the methods of worship in Yoruba and the Southern Baptist church. The Brother/Sister plays are located in Louisiana which has the second largest proportion of African Americans in the USA, predominantly from Nigeria. Despite the Nigerian origins of Yoruba, McCraney was introduced to Yoruba myths by his Caribbean grandfather, a sign of the extent that Yoruba culture has infiltrated black America.
So many versions of the religion exist around the world that it is difficult to precisely define the components of Yoruba, (for example many of key Gods are called by many different names). However, it is possible to establish some basic common factors. The Yoruba believe that their ancestor Olodumare (in effect God), fell from the sky bringing the belief system to Aye (earth; the physical realm). All humans have Ayanmo, a form of destiny, which gives them the chance to become one in spirit with Olodumare; this is the ultimate aim. If they are successful, they will graduate to Orun-Rere (heaven), if not they will end at Orun-Apadi (hell). All humans emit Ashe (spiritual energy) which impacts on all other living things (including the planet itself) - this energy can be transferred via thought or action. The transference of Ashe leads to the strengthening of one’s Ori-Inu (spirituality) and eventually to Iponri (ultimate potential spirituality) which means in Yoruba that humans are in charge of their own destiny. It is also possible to manipulate this by consulting Orunmila (the deity who represents prophecy) via Ifa (divination), or Ebo (offering gifts to the deities).
There are hundreds of Orisha (deities) in Yoruba, deputies sent by Olodumare to help maintain order on earth and aid humans. Orisha can be contacted via prayer, offerings, or trance and each has a different role in the religion. They are distinguished by colours, numbers, foods and days of the week and people worship their chosen deity by acknowledging these traits, most commonly by wearing certain colours of beads on a necklace. The Yoruba also worship their Egungun (ancestors who achieved Iponri), who are expected to provide spiritual guidance in times of decision or struggle. They are remembered in prayers at mealtimes, expert priests can invoke their spirits, and there are also specialist festivals and ceremonies to honour them.
McCraney gives some of the characters in The Brother/Sister trilogy the names of Orisha, often in accordance with their character traits and function in the drama. However, he has also commented that it is not always accurate symbolism - his predominant focus being to name them according to their relationships, and therefore interactions.