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Hilarious, spellbinding ‘In the Red and Brown Water’ spins versatile folktale at Zellerbach Playhouse

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OCTOBER 25, 2022

“In the Red and Brown Water” introduced its pivotal protagonist with a murmuring, thundering chant: “Oya, Oya, Oya in the air.” Casting a sharp spell over Zellerbach Playhouse, this opening set the stage for failed dreams and mythic hopes, as youthful ambitions clashed with harsh realities in the Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies’ rendition of the play.

To pursue a dream career or to stay at home and care for family — “In the Red and Brown Water,” written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Margo Hall, takes this seemingly impossible decision head-on, crafting a modern folktale about too-real consequences that can spiral from just a few choices. 

When young Oya (Kaiyah Florence) is given the opportunity to pursue track at the collegiate level on scholarship, she’s forced to choose between her ambitions and caring for her ailing mother at home. After she declines the offer from the track coach, Oya sets off a ripple effect where she must confront harsh waters growing up in Louisiana. Told through snapshots of Oya’s journey into adulthood and framed by her Louisiana street, the play follows a young girl who must navigate the entangled dynamics of her home while growing up. 

Powerfully stepping into the role of Oya, Florence brought forth a dynamic performance the audience could not tear itself away from. A bewitching blend of Yoruba mythology set against a modern backdrop, the play functioned as a whispered history, packed with characters ready to teach crucial life lessons while embroiled in their own desires. 

While “In the Red and Brown Water” dealt with the harsh realities of life, with every word there was a waiting joke, and this often occured when characters broke the play’s fourth wall. When Oya vehemently declined her suitor Shongo (Trevonne Bell), she narrated her actions as she wistfully looked after him, cutting through the barrier between herself and the audience and adding on another layer of comedy. The sneaking exposition dashed into all of the characters’ dialogues, and it introduced a hidden narrator’s voice. By breaking the fourth wall, the play became reminiscent of a storyteller adding their own details into a folktale. 

 Oya’s story came to life amidst a three-dimensional snapshot of the Louisiana street she lived on. Suspended windows and simple door frames fleshed out the Louisiana neighborhood, but the play’s colorful lighting completed the stage, transforming the simple set into a true folktale setting for the mythical story. While much of the costume design remained minimally modern, Oya’s signature dress in each act was symbolic of her growth: Her red dress grew longer and covered more of her body as she traveled further into womanhood. 

As one of Oya’s potential lovers, Bell perfectly captured comic overconfidence as the brazen Shongo, giving a ravishing, bold and always hilarious performance. Paired alongside the quiet and earnest Ogun (Jerome Bennett) and the boyish neighborhood mischief-maker Elegba (Geovany Calderon), the three spun truly troubled waters for Oya with expert charm. 

Though “In the Red and Brown Water” was powered by its skillful ensemble cast, it was brought to life by its thriving musical undercurrent — chants and song often providing a beating heart for the performance. Saman Wright led this heartbeat as the enigmatic Aunt Elegua; her rich voice pumped scenes with pure magic.

In the play’s explosive final act, Oya was forced to come to terms with the choices she’d made in her journey to womanhood. Punctuated by rhythmic sound and spinning set pieces, the tale’s conclusion was one that audiences will find hard to forget. 

Oya’s story is a solemn yet shining testament to the balancing act of traversing life’s uniquely impossible choices. Filled with bitter love and vibrant hope, “In the Red and Brown Water” tells a versatile coming-of-age folktale intertwined with modern but forever relevant problems.

Contact Addison Lee at 

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OCTOBER 24, 2022