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Picasso and African Myth Unite in NC a&T’s Production of in the Red and Brown Water

(Last Updated On: April 18, 2017)
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Joseph Johnson playing Shango, and April Davis playing the lead role of Oya.

Part family drama, part African fable and part Picasso, In the Red and Brown Water is a dynamic thought-provoking piece that challenges both its audience and its actors. And the students of North Carolina A&T State University are ready to accept it.

“West African Yoruba mythology is critical to this piece,” said director Dr. Darius Omar Williams, who is also the new theatre program director as of last August. “McCraney tells a modern-day story set in the Bayou of Louisiana while also remaining true to the original myth. The story is inspired by Frederico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 play, Yerma.”

The piece, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is steeped in West African influence and is the first in a trilogy. It highlights a talented African-American track runner, Oya, who grows up in the projects of Louisiana and ultimately sacrifices her full-ride scholarship and future to stay at home with her dying mother. What ensues is a love triangle between her, a stable man with a stutter, Ogun, and the bad boy Shango.

Through it all, Oya learns not only has she given up her chance at a successful career, but she also is unable to have children. Feeling though she has no place in society—either as a mother or career woman—she’s driven mad and even cuts her own ear off.

Williams says the characters, Oya, Aunt Elegua, Mama Moja, Nia, Shun, Elegba, Shango, Ogun and O Li Roon, are also names of West African spirits. “West African deities are similar to Greek gods and goddesses,” he explained. “McCraney’s work functions both in and outside the traditional classical model. According to the Yoruba pantheon, the characters in the play are messengers (Orishas) and the embodiment of ashe, or the spiritual command also known as the power to make things happen.”

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Director Dr. Darius Omar Williams, who is also the new theatre program director as of last August.

McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water wasn’t what the school had planned for its next production, but difficulties over rights and royalties forced the prgoram to switch at the last minute. “Unfortunately, that is the nature of both academic and professional theatre,” Williams said. “Sometimes changes have to be made. When I agreed to step in as director at the last minute, my primary concern was ensuring that the students would have an opportunity to execute and tell a good story in such a short turn around.”

The cast and crew hit the ground running and Williams says the entire play was blocked in less than two weeks. Plus, because the new production requires a scaled back, minimalistic set, it allowed the actors to begin working in the Paul Robeson theater space early on. “It’s been a huge advantage for us in terms of acclimating their bodies in the space well in advance,” Williams said.

Besides it’s logistical advantages, Williams loves the McCraney production because of his stimulating language, which is “universal and strongly grounded in classical tradition.”

“The New York Times describes this play as a ‘work of rare lyricism,’” he said. “My favorite aspect about it is that, ultimately, not only does this production of In the Red and Brown Water help to break down the boundaries and limitations of what we define as classical work, it also continues to challenge our students with a certain set of competencies that all professional theatre majors should possess.

Wanna go? NC A&T State University will present In the Red and Brown Water Thursday through Sunday and April 27-30 at the Paul Robeson Theatre, 1601 E. Market St., Greensboro. Tickets are #17. For tickets and more information call 336-334-7749 or visit ncataggies.com.

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