THEATER | “In the Red and Brown Water”: At the Guthrie Theater, Pillsbury House Theatre tells a tough story well


Recently, I visited the Guthrie Theater to see the Pillsbury House Theatre Company production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water, from his Brother/Sister trilogy, directed by Marion McClinton. This production of the play is being staged in the Guthrie’s little black-box theater, the Dowling Studio.

I’d never been to the Guthrie, and aside from the fact that it looks slightly like an Ikea from the outside, the experience was, oddly enough, more exciting than I had expected. The inside is sleek and relaxing, with bright spots of color provided by various lighting effects and tinted windows. There are a ton of different theaters, concession stands, and lounges hidden at the ends of different stairwells and passageways. It’s almost like a fashionable maze, or a tree house for adults. Not to mention, the views of Minneapolis and the Mississippi River are fantastic.

It seems that generally, those who perform this play can make due with very little in the way of scenery and stage, so the black box studio works well. Because playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote much of the stage direction into the script as dialogue—as in the actress playing Oya says, “Oya laughs at her crazy mamma. ‘You crazy,’”—there doesn’t need to be much of a stage, or set, for the play to be performed. This is important in terms of accessibility to the play: whoever wants to perform the play can do so under almost any circumstance.

Maybe it was the intimate setting, or the magic of interwoven folklore, or just the amazing people who were cast in the play, but I found the play to be startlingly well-acted. The times that I’ve seen such heartfelt, genuine, and beautiful performances have been few and far between. Sure, the playwright is a promising young talent, under 30, and all poetic and everything, but those Pillsbury House actors are bursting with talent.

Okay, in order to really review the play, I must admit to something that is wholly embarrassing. Really, it’s proof that I can be, at times, incredibly stupid. However, without this piece of information, my review of the play will be incomplete. Here goes:

On opening night, the Guthrie hosted a press night for review. I went with a friend, and we were enjoying ourselves. Then, it seemed that all the issues in the play were resolved, and music played, the audience cheered, and the lights went up. I looked at my friend and shrugged, “Alright, well, I guess that was pretty good.” And we left. I swear, some other people did, too. Maybe. This ending, although seemingly complete, was a little irritating.

When I got home, I sat down to do some research about the play and then write my review. Pillsbury House Theatre has all sorts of interesting information on their website, including a video of the actors rehearsing a part of the play that involved some difficult planning. I pressed play, and then a cold sweat came over me. I don’t remember that part. Did they cut it out? Would they have done that to a play from such a well-respected playwright? Immediately, I texted my friend: “ZOMG. We left during intermission.”

So, there it is. I’m a total goon. On Sunday night, I paid for a new ticket and went to see the play again.

In the Red and Brown Water is a story about a young woman named Oya (played by the amazing Christina Clark) who chooses to forgo her dreams as a track-runner in order to take care of her ailing mother (played by the small but strong Sonja Parks). Once her mother passes, Oya must make decisions that affect her own life further, in ways that might make you question how much her loving and wise mother actually taught her. She takes up with a man named Shango (played by the handsome Ansa Akyea) who is no good for her; he leaves, and she takes up with a man named Ogun (played by the smooth-voiced James A. Williams) who loves her but doesn’t make her smolder with passion. This is where I thought the play ended. And this ending, although sad, satisfied me. This is a real ending. However, following the intermission, Oya is subjected to various other tragedies of circumstance and culture, leading her to a fate all too familiar to female characters. This ending was something I cannot begin to grasp, not out of some lack of artistic desire to “get it,” but rather because my life experience differs so much from that of Oya’s that it just isn’t my place to understand, maybe.

Although I enjoyed the play (the first half much more than the second), I feel that there are things about it that I just don’t have the experience to understand in this life. From this play, I personally took away a story of sadness, a woman relegated to live in a man’s world, beholden always to his desires, dreams, and pressures, however, I know for a fact that it is about much, much more than that. It is a play that I believe everyone should see, and take away from it what they can.

Generally, tickets to the play will cost you between $22-$30, but I have it on good authority that rush tickets to fill the theater can be purchased just moments before the show starts for $15. There will be post-play discussions for In the Red and Brown Water on Wednesday evenings, after the final evening show, until June 2nd.