I liken what we do to making a sand mandala,” says stage director Shirley Jo Finney. “You spend all this time making this wonderful, beautiful creation and then, with one breath, it disappears. But then it makes room for something new.”
Her upcoming production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water” marks the second time she has worked on this play, the first of a trilogy of plays featuring the same characters from this exciting new voice in theater. But where she mounted a successful five-month production at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theater, working with professional actors, this production comes out of her residency at UCSB’s Theatre and Dance Department, and uses 10 student actors.
Closer in age to the characters in the play, the student actors are also in the middle of major life decisions — what to do after graduation, whether to pursue acting as a career — and that interests Ms. Finney. The play — which draws from West African Yoruba and Caribbean Santeria mythology, folk tales and poetry — cares very much about major life decisions, but refuses to judge. Likewise, the actors are working with a director who professes to take in all suggestions and tries not to offer a “correct” way.
The play is set in a Louisiana housing project and follows Oya, a track star who is torn between pursuing her sport and looking after her mother. She’s also torn between the man she “should” be with, Ogun Size (Roberto Tolentino), and the one she is helplessly attracted to, Shango (Rigoberto Sanchez).
Mr. McCraney’s writing style is new, sometimes radical. Characters often speak aloud their stage directions and then act them. The language mixes high poetry and street slang with detours into song. One might call these devices Brechtian, but there’s something more ceremonial than political going on. Ms. Finney’s Fountain production was intimate for the 99-seat theater; at the Hatlen Theater, she has 300 seats and a large stage.
“When you walk in, the stage is an altar,” she says. “And for every ritual, there has to be a sacrifice. In (the Fountain), I couldn’t explore the epic nature of this play. But now I am enhancing the deity quality, the vocals, and the music.”
The actress who plays Oya, Joré Aaron-Boughton, is a junior at UCSB. “This 5’4″, 5’3″ (girl) fills up the whole theater! She’s fierce.” In the mythology of the play, she also represents wind, a force that can either be gentle or a hurricane if need be. Mr. Sanchez’s Shango is the “god of war,” and a player, a ladies’ man. In Yoruba mythology, Shango and Oya are both lovers and opposing forces. Not knowing the mythology behind the story, will audiences leave knowing much more?
“You will come out in conversation about your choices and your life!” Ms. Finney laughs. “The power of this play comes in the visceral experience you have in the theater.”
Playwright McCraney is only in his early 30s, but already he’s earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick, the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. He wrote the first play while doing his master’s in Yale. In person, he’s very quiet and reflective. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this came out of this man’s head?’ ” she remembers. “Because he is so gifted. The words, the play is so lyrical. In the theatrical community he is so prolific and now he’s been anointed.”
His writing, Ms. Finney says, is like jazz: “It’s not the notes being played, but the space in between. Here it’s the space and intention behind the world. That’s where the spirit is.”
“In the Red and Brown Water”
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and Thursday-Saturday March 5-7,
2 p.m. Sunday, March 1
Where: Hatlen Theater, UCSB
Information: (805) 893-2064, www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu