A legitimate work of art doesn’t require perfection in each of its components to manifest its truth. It doesn’t even have to reach the pinnacle of its own form to raise its observer to a higher place within his or her own being.
In his examination of the Japanese tea ceremony, The Book of Tea (first published in 1906), Okakura Kakuzo explains that the cups, bowls and utensils used in the ceremonial serving were revered for their elegant simplicity, their uncomplicated blending of design, material and creation. There is a story of a Zen master who intentionally dropped and broke his cup. Instead of discarding it he repaired it using a gold-flaked lacquer that, while it held the irregular pieces together, also drew attention to each point of fracture, each jagged line, where some portion of the porcelain had become dust and so left unequal edges, now gaps, filled with golden adhesive. This cup was valued above its unblemished set mates; its scarring perhaps a tribute to the nobility of suffering, or an expression of the role of randomness in life.
Closer to home, Native American Cheyenne and Ojibwa cultures created intricate beadwork stringing thousands of glass, stone, gem and wooden beads into geometric patterns that took hundreds of hours to complete. Yet every belt, headdress or ‘dream catcher’ included a single bead placed out of order. In their tradition, to presume perfection would be an affront to the gods. The Ojibwa shamans taught that The Great Spirit could only gain entrance into and inhabit a work of art through its flaw.
So, what to do with Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s compelling play currently in performance at the Fountain Theater? Because, if this production of In The Red and Brown Water has a flaw someplace, even just small enough to let the gods in, it was not on display during the opening performance last Saturday evening.
Oh, the deities were there all right. Oya, the Yoruban goddess of the Niger River; Elegba/Elegua, the messenger and trickster; Yemoja of the oceans; Shango the god of fire and lightening; Ogun god of metal, and of war. They walked the earth and they strode the stage – called to continue their dramas begun in African lore and now embodied in a timeless, eternal, urban Olympus, currently located in a mythical project, situated somewhere outside of New Orleans. But they weren’t required to sneak in through a flaw. Nor were they forced in against their natures or their will. McCraney’s writing (his story as compelling as any struggle of character against fate has ever been, his dialog as true in it’s expressions of laughter, lust, loss and anguish as any mortal family’s celebration and grieving), must have convinced them that 50 October through December shows in Los Angeles were the perfect venue for their eternal explorations of self.
The perfection doesn’t end there. Award winning Shirley Jo Finney’s direction brings McCraney’s imagined struggle of a young woman’s choice at a critical moment in her life, and it’s consequences, achingly to the stage. Drawing from multiple genres of theater Finney uses a chorus that is a brilliant blending of Greek tragedy, West African folklore and Southern Baptist gospel singing to summon the actors, and the audience, to something and someplace divine – a recurring choice in a holy place, where life is about to play itself out – again.
The thing that impressed me most about Ms. Finney’s directorial touch was her ability to take a story deeply grounded in culture and tradition and make it so powerfully universal. To be sure, it was going to be powerful, even without that universality. In the Red and Brown Water was going to work beautifully even if it had stayed confined to the projects and the porches of San Pere. But Finney found a way to make sure it stayed a story that finds resonance in any heart that has ever loved something outside of itelf.
I asked Ms. Finney, during a brief conversation after the performance, how she was able to do that so completely and successfully. She asked if I meant ‘How did you make it not feel ethnic?’ But I hadn’t properly formulated my own thoughts on what I had just seen. I understood how she could have heard that in my premature question and suggested, ‘I need to think about it a bit more.’ I’ve done that, and the question I was looking for was ‘How was she able to take the powerful feel of the language and the place and the conflict that drives the play and make it not feel at all provincial?’
Of course that started with the writing, which takes a provincial and accented language that is regional while also being as universal as human longing for something more (evidently a trait creators and their creations have in common), and which never sounds like ‘writing’ at all. While having a gift for employing language to both reveal character and propel story every bit as strong as Tarantino or Mamet, McCraney finds his own style and voice and it isn’t very far into the play when the audience comes to feel it is their own as well. Then Ms. Finney and her actors found and conveyed both the boundaries of location and time and the depth and breadth of the human condition.
The casting is flawless. The entire ensemble brings a palpable physicality without which the play would surely suffer. Thoughts and spoken words are matched with posture, movement and stillness that at times feel like ballet. This is no small feat when you consider that any successful story that wants to speak in depth about gods or demi-gods (or maybe even people) has to capture their duality. This again speaks to Finney’s excellent directorial work. It can’t have been easy to find 6 actors who were each able to match the power of the rest. This play has some muscle to it and it would have been easy for any those six (Diarra Kilpatrick, Dorian Christian Baucum, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Peggy A Blow, Stephen Marshall or Theodore Perkins) to pull it out of balance; to become the focal point of the audiences attention instead of the story unfolding before us. That never happens. When a highly revelatory or highly emotional line is delivered the audience’s attention is already moving to see what one of the other characters will do or say.
Over the course of the evening Diarra Kilpatrick’s Oya moves like a gangly adolescent, a graceful athlete and a young woman possessed of a sensuality she doesn’t yet comprehend. She gives a wonderful performance. As with the rest of the cast she lets the words do the work and her physical conveyance of, by turns, youthful exuberance, emerging womanhood and the suffering of knowing life has opened its hand once, and now closed it, seems effortless.
If Peggy A. Blow (Mama Mojo) hasn’t been designated a Los Angeles cultural treasure, and thereby barred from leaving local theater television or film, then someone has made a big mistake. This past summer she was a standout in a production of Murray Mednick’s The Fool and the Red Queen, and here she is again making you forget you have ever seen her in anything else and inhabiting a character so completely you feel guilty for listening in on her conversations.
The four prominent male roles are also perfectly cast. Gilbert Glenn Brown’s Shango is powerful and playful, predatory and pensive. He not only allows us a glimpse into his characters furnace of a soul, he makes us want to rethink people we may have known before and judged too quickly. Dorian Christian Baucum as Ogun, a deity of iron and metal, reveals these elements in their molten and solid states. He plays a gentle man whose strength lies beneath the surface, tamed by Oya, but not completely. There is something pacing in his caged heart and the feeling he calls forth is that no one should provoke it to anger.
Stephen Marshall enlivens two characters who each come from outside of the circle of the main story and who each impact it with a humanity that makes us believe that brotherhood is possible. As the college track coach who offers the lightening fast Oya a scholarship he suggests fate may sometimes be thwarted and as Oli Roon, the liquor-store owner, he delivers what I felt to be the most political observation of the play: that the bondage of class transcends race and that there is hope outside the scripts we are each told we are obligated to play. I may be reading too much into this character, but that is part of the beauty of the play – it grows large and small, it expands and it contracts; it finds light in the darkness.
As the Puckish Elegba, Stephen Perkins works a bit of magic of his own. In each scene he has something in his hand – a stick, a cane, a magicians wand? His character has an innocence that disarms. Given the raw power of the other main characters it takes a while to catch on to the idea that he comfortably understands the world will eventually turn in his direction; the meek may not only inherit the earth, they may even chuckle quietly as they anticipate its supplication.
Simone Messick (Shun), Iona Morris (as Elegua, a feminine reflection of Perkins’ character), Justin Chu Cary (Egungun) and Maya Lynn Robinson (Nia) all contribute to the seamless feel of the play, creating the waves and tides upon which the story sails, holding it within a current and propelling it to where it always has gone and where it will always be going.
Like I said, if there is a flaw, I couldn’t find it. But, in this bit of art, perfection doesn’t keep the gods out.
Playing in Los Angeles through December 16th. For information on performance dates and times The Fountain Theater website can be found at: https://www.fountaintheatre.com