"The Brother/Sister Plays"
"The Brother/Sister Plays" Credit: Michael Brosilow

The diction is folktale formal. The characters are named for Yoruba deities. A woman ululates, for chrissake. The opening passages of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water, and therefore of his “Brother/Sister Plays” trilogy, have such a powerful African flavor about them that—I’m not kidding—I got confused. Was this story really set in Louisiana, as I’d been led to believe? Maybe I’d misunderstood. Maybe this was some Afro-Caribbean island town, or Lagos.

Hearing someone belatedly mention the bayou helped surprisingly little. The citizens of McCraney’s fictitious San Pere, Louisiana, are Americans, sure enough. But they’re still profoundly foreign to middle-class me, especially when it comes to their notions of family life. Of course I know that teens who grow up poor and without prospects in an environment lacking a nuclear family structure may latch on to parenthood as proof of self-worth. But it’s one thing to have the information and another to find yourself in the vivid presence of those teens, hearing them celebrate having children at 16. Or, stranger still, watching a romantic triangle become a race to knock up the hypotenuse—in this case, a lovely, talented runner named Oya, after a Yoruba goddess associated with the wind and, ironically, fertility—because, here, you truly don’t have anything if you don’t have a baby.

I was amazed at how rattling I found it all.

But that’s the triumph of In the Red and Brown Water in this marvelous Steppenwolf production directed by Tina Landau. At once stylized and raw, mythic and immediate, disorienting and disarmingly plain, McCraney’s play did the work of tragedy, placing me outside my world even as it tore me up inside.

How? Not by means of scenic devices. Though it has its share of secrets to disclose as it goes along, James Schuette’s set is basically a floor and the undraped, black-streaked back wall of Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre. No, the play’s power resides in McCraney’s dialogue, which tells the facts of life in an out-of-time poetic language that’s often funny and idiomatic but never stereotypically ghetto; in movement that’s dancerly, and sometimes even danced, without oozing over into pretension; and in a phenomenal cast that finds perfect ensemble sync while leaving room for astonishing turns like Alana Arenas’s as a very nearly airborne Oya, Jacqueline Williams’s as clownish yet not-to-be-trifled-with Aunt Elegua, and Glenn Davis’s as the rotten-sweet trickster Elegba.

That power never quite carries over into the other two plays of the trilogy, The Brothers Size and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, in which McCraney lets go of Oya and picks up instead on a homosexual theme only glanced at in In the Red and Brown Water. The new theme has its own virtues and torments, not to mention social significance, in that it opens up the can of worms that dare not speak its name: African-American homophobia. But the transition stymies any sense of epic sweep. I found it hard to let go of Oya so suddenly. She becomes an important loose thread.

Indeed, by the time we get to Marcus the whole enterprise has come a little unraveled conceptually. Clearly anxious to tie his narrative in to Katrina (or what’s the gulf coast for?), McCraney supplies a character with a prophetic dream that not only foretells the hurricane but contextualizes so that it takes on a moral dimension that might be disturbing if it weren’t so puzzling.

Still, I’d rather be puzzled by this incredibly ambitious and accomplished work than satisfied by something less. “The Brother/Sister Plays” is comparable to Angels in America, not just in terms of its length and preoccupations but also because of the mythopoetic territory it opens up. Like Tony Kushner, McCraney offers a sacred site, a meeting ground for America’s living and dead, dream and reality, truth and denial.