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Old themes find new expression in Bonstelle's 'In the Red and Brown Water'

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In the Red and Brown Water at the Bonstelle Theatre

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Every now and again, a play comes along that opens your eyes to another culture, another time and place, another storytelling tradition. The Bonstelle Theatre’s new production of “In the Red and Brown Water” takes the ostensibly familiar coming-of-age story, set in “the distant present in San Pere, Louisiana” and layers it with Yoruba mythology and traditions that span the Atlantic from western Africa to the Caribbean.

“In the Red and Brown Water” is one of the three plays comprising the Brother/Sister Plays written by 2013 MacArthur Fellow Tarell Alvin McCarney, an alumnus of the Yale School of Drama, Britain’s National Theatre, and currently a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble.

The play is directed by Aku Kadogo, who has performed extensively throughout the area and has directed a number of non-traditional plays at WSU (“Flow”) in a way that pushes her students to explore new performance methodologies and internal resources. Kadogo’s vision for “In the Red and Brown Water” is crisp but nuanced, and her young cast blossoms in this fertile material. Poetry, dance, music, spoken word – all the tools of the performance artist – are layered against a simple story of a teenage girl who makes difficult choices.

Kadago describes McCarney as a poetic genius in his use of the orishas – the spirits or deities that reflects one of the manifestations of God in the Yoruba religion. It isn’t necessary to understand Yoruban mythology to enjoy this play, but it adds a layer of meaning, metaphor and foreshadowing that is most satisfying.

In the Yoruban religion, Oya is the goddess of the wind and tempest, said to have turned into the River Niger. She is one of three wives of Shango, a principal deity associated with virility, magnetism, fire and lightening. Shango’s favorite wife is the one who gives him babies, Oshun, the goddess of fertility. There’s also Oba, who was tricked by Oshun into cutting off her own ear and trying to feed it to Shango. And there is Ogun, the god of iron and metallurgy.

In McCarney’s play, Oya (Kadijah Perkins) is a teenage track star who must choose between a college scholarship and staying with her dying mother (Yolanda D. Jack). She must also choose between Shango (Donnevan Tolbert), the bad-boy to whom she’s attracted, and Ogun Size (Zyle Cook), the strong loyal car mechanic who wants only to love and protect her. Throughout the play she is taunted by Nia (Kristin Dawn-Dumas) and Shun (Tayler Jones) – the latter of whom seems to be always pregnant with the babies Oya longs to have. She even helps care for the offspring of young baby-daddy Elegba (Danté Jones), who floats through the story as the spirit of trickery and chance, an intermediary between the mortal and spirit words.

Rounding out the cast are James Jordan as Egungun, Jackson McLaskey O Li Roon and the Man from State, and Laurice White, who plays Aunt Elegua – the woman who understands the choices Oya will make before she does.

Does Oya choose wisely? Emily Dickinson wrote, ““The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care.” And that is as good a plot summary for this story as any. But what makes this play so engrossing is not the plot, but the way the story is told. The characters each speak their own stage directions before delivering their lines, and the effect adds wonderful levity to the production. This device also prevents the audience from simply watching the play as they might any soap opera; by calling attention to the stage directions, we are constantly reminded that the story is both symbolic and instructive.

If you care about storytelling traditions, or are simply interested in rich theatrical experiences, you will enjoy this magical ensemble performance by the WSU Bonstelle Theatre company. Supporting director Aku Kadogo on the Production Crew are: Mike Waldrup (Stage Manager), Kimbra Essex (Scene Design), Brian Dambacher (Technical Director), Jessica Rushing (Property Master), Anne Suchyta (Costume Design), Amy Schneider (Light Design), Michael Hallberg (Master Electrician ), and Tyler Ezell (Sound Designer).

Performances of “In the Red and Brown Water” run February 7 through 16, 2014 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available online or by calling 313-577-2960. Regular ticket prices are $20 and discounted $15 tickets are available to all students, seniors 62+, and WSU staff and alumni. Student rush tickets are available for $10 one hour before the show, and the Valentine’s Day Special offers two tickets for $29.

The Bonstelle Theatre is located at 3424 Woodward Ave. in Detroit.

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