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The Washington Post
'Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet' tops off bayou trilogy
By Peter Marks
Monday, January 10, 2011
With "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney completes the last leg of an irresistible bayou trilogy. In "The Brothers Size," he explored the magnetic pull of sibling connectivity. For "In the Red and Brown Water," he traced the tragic fallout of unrealized promise. And now, via "Marcus," he tackles the enigmatic foundations of sexual identity.
Like the earlier plays, "Marcus" takes place in the fictional Louisiana town of San Pere, in an era he whimsically labels the "distant present." As was the case with both "Size" and "Water," "Marcus" is expertly staged at Studio Theatre, this time with a potent eight-member ensemble shepherded by director Timothy Douglas.
The piece, in which 16-year-old Marcus Eshu (an appealing J. Mal McCree) begins to experiment with what it means to be "sweet" - a euphemism for gay - has a far sunnier spirit than the earlier works, even though in this one the rain clouds of a massive storm are gathering over the town. Any rumbling of recent Louisiana meteorology, of course, puts an audience in mind of the big one that inundated that region six years ago.
But the disturbances that preoccupy "Marcus" have more to do with the complications triggered by the young man's ever more confident embrace of his own desires. As the title suggests, the play treats Marcus's sexuality not so much as a scandal but as a mystery waiting to be unlocked: Marcus's ambiguous dreams about a man in white spark endless speculation in a town where superstitions are taken seriously. In his waking life, though, he's less and less ambivalent. Long the romantic target of one of his best friends, Osha (Rachael Holmes), Marcus is aroused instead by the shady Shua (Lance Coadie Williams), a burly visitor from the North who gets his satisfactions on the down-low.
One of the "secrets" in "Marcus" has to do with a homosexual undercurrent that may run in the teenager's family. Marcus's late father Elegba was a prominent character in "The Brothers Size," a slippery ex-con who insinuated himself into the life of the more impressionable brother, Oshoosi Size. Here, McCraney suggests a clearer rationale for the bond between the unseen Elegba and Oshoosi, one that posits Marcus indelibly as his father's son, and draws the works more fully into an integrated cycle.
It's McCraney's stylistic signature, more than the play's thematic thrust, that gives "Marcus" its distinctiveness. Those who've seen "Size" or "Water" will be familiar with his flourishes: characters with names out of West African mythology who not only speak their lines but their stage directions as well. While the devices do draw attention to themselves - we are commanded here to feel the presence of a writer - they come by now to seem characteristics of San Pere, the way a porch or mountain might in the terrain of another play. (Reflecting the pattern of the entire "Brother/Sister" trilogy, the set, by Daniel Conway, is practically bare, with only a moody sky as backdrop and translucent glass wall onto which raindrops sprinkle.)
Yet the self-narration is more effectively employed in "Marcus" than in the previous plays, particularly in its most intimate moments. When, for instance, Williams's Shua is seducing Marcus one evening, out among the elements somewhere, the actor's final remark to the technicians in the booth offers a clever meta-theatrical close to the scene.
"Marcus," too, easily proves to be the funniest of the plays, imbued as it is with a sense of a child with a growing acceptance of who he is and what he might achieve. The vivacious, take-no-prisoners women who surround him in San Pere - from his irate dynamo of a mother (the terrific Bianca LaVerne Jones) to a mouthy pal (the fab Shannon A.L. Dorsey) who lets him get away with absolutely nothing - accord the production abundant opportunities for nifty verbal clashes.
As Osha, the fetching Holmes convincingly conveys the emotional denial in which a young woman might envelop herself, and Stephanie Berry offers an endearing account of Aunt Elegua, who may be getting on but has relinquished not a jot of her spunk. Williams, Nickolas Vaughan and Montae Russell are excellent as the men who entice, taunt and advise the curious Marcus.
The coming-of-age of a young gay man may not be novel material these days, but "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet" has on its agenda a more important function: the propelling forward of a writer who doubtless has other theater trails to blaze. Let's eagerly await whatever scintillating cycle McCraney has yet to spin.
Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Set, Daniel Conway; lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Reggie Ray; sound, Erik Trester; dramaturgy, Adrien-Alice Hansel. About 2 hours. Back to top
J. Mal McCree (Marcus Eshu) is pleased to make his Washington DC debut. A native of Detroit, Mr. McCree’s recent Off Broadway credits include Zooman and the Sign at Signature Theatre Company in New York; Colored People’s Time with MidTown International Theatre Festival; The Fabulous Miss Marie at the Cherry Lane Theatre; Subway Love at The Actors’ Playhouse; and The Etymology of Bird at Summerstage. His film credits include The Art of Love, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Recreator, White Sugar in a Blackpot, and Real Talk. He has appeared on television in Law & Order. He trained under the late Israel Hicks at Rutgers University, where he received his B.F.A. in Theatre Arts. He also received classical training at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England. Mr. McCree is a member of the historic Negro Ensemble Company.
Rachael Holmes (Osha) made her Washington DC debut in last season’s Leadership Repertory at The Shakespeare Theatre Company as Queen Isabel and Princess Katharine in Richard II and Henry V. Prior stage credits include Ruined at Manhattan Theatre Club; No Child… at The Hangar and Capital Repertory Theatres; and the international productions of SEVEN and Widowers’ Houses with Epic Theatre Ensemble (AUDELCO nomination for best lead actress). Her television credits include The Good Wife, Dirt, Guiding Light, All My Children, national commercials, and several voice-overs. Ms. Holmes is a master teaching artist for The New Victory Theatre and is a new addition to The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s education team. She received her M.F.A. from New York University.
Shannon A. L. Dorsey (Shaunta Iyun) returns to The Studio Theatre after appearing in In the Red and Brown Water as “Shun” and Breath Boom in The Studio 2ndstage. Off Broadway, she has appeared in The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller. Other recent credits include Synetic Theater’s Carmen (Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Ensemble) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Helen Hayes Award Recipient for Outstanding Ensemble) at The Kennedy Center; and national tours of 1001 Inventions and Sex Signals. Ms. Dorsey received her B.A. in Theatre and African American Studies from Temple University.
Bianca LaVerne Jones (Oba) has appeared Off Broadway in McReele with Roundabout Theatre Company; Trojan Women (AUDELCO nomination) and Macbeth (also performed in Germany) with the Classical Theatre of Harlem; and Virgin of the Vieux Carré with Primary Stages. Other credits include Iken’s Perversion with F. Murray Abraham at Loft 21/21; the world premiere of A Civil War Christmas at Long Wharf Theatre; Macbeth at the Lillian Theatre; The Threepenny Opera at Williamstown Theatre Festival; and Breath Boom and Medea/MacBeth/ Cinderella at Yale Repertory Theatre among others. Ms. Jones most recently played DJ Truth in Homage 3: ILLMATIC at the Black River Theatre. Her television and film credits include 12 Steps To Recovery, What Would You Do, and Men in Love. Ms. Jones attended North Carolina School of the Arts, SUNY Purchase, and Yale School of Drama.
Stephanie Berry (Shun/ Elegua) was recently seen in a revival of her OBIE Award winning one-woman show The Shaneequa Chronicles: The Making of a Black Woman in New York at the National Black Theatre. She has appeared on Broadway in Drowning Crow. Her stage credits also include Trouble in Mind and Gem of the Ocean at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre; Intimate Apparel at Philadelphia Theatre Company; Oedipus the King at Hartford Stage; Fences at the Arden Theatre and Actors Theatre; Distracted at Mark Taper Forum; King Lear at Portland Center Stage; When Grace Comes In at La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Reprtory Theatre; and To Kill a Mockingbird at Actors Theatre of Louisville. She has appeared on all three versions of Law & Order. Some of her film credits include the upcoming The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best, No Reservations, The Invasion, and Finding Forrester. Ms. Berry was the 2009-2010 recipient of the Theatre Communications Group/Fox Foundation Actor’s Fellowship for “Distinguished Artist.”
Montae Russell (Ogun Size) appeared on Broadway in King Hedley II and Prelude to a Kiss. His Washington DC credits include King Hedley II and the August Wilson 20th Century Staged Readings, both at The Kennedy Center. He has performed at numerous Off Broadway, Los Angeles, and regional theatres, and is one production away from having performed in all 10 plays in the August Wilson cycle. His recent television appearances include Detroit 187 and Cold Case. Mr. Russell spent many seasons on ER as Paramedic Zadro White. Film credits include The Players Club, Banged Out, Laurel Avenue, and Lily in Winter opposite Natalie Cole. Mr. Russell has directed several short films, including the award-winning Something For Nothing. He is a graduate of University of Pittsburgh and Rutgers University. Mr. Russell is pleased to make his Studio Theatre debut.
Nickolas Vaughan (Terrell) recently appeared in The Kennedy Center’s world premiere production of Locomotion. He was also seen in Fucking A at The Studio 2ndStage; The Piano Lesson at the Hangar Theatre; Tamar on the River (21/24 Workshop Series) at Signature Theatre; Barrio Grrrl! and Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly (part of the New Visions/New Voices Festival) at The Kennedy Center; U.G.L.Y. A New Musical with the Page-to-Stage Festival; and the world premiere of Shadowboxer, at the Kay Theatre (UMD). Mr. Vaughan received a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre from Howard University where he performed in A Chorus Line, Working, and Company.
Lance Coadie Williams (Shua/Oshoosi Size) is honored to make his Studio Theatre debut. His credits include The Oedipus Plays with The Shakespeare Theatre in Athens; Fences at Roundhouse Theatre; The Children’s Hour (2005 Greater Baltimore Theatre Award for Outstanding Actor) at Everyman Theatre and Repstage; My Children! My Africa!, Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Fences at Everyman Theatre; the title role in Hamlet at The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival; and Love’s Fire and Shoot the Piano Player at The Berkshire Theatre Festival. He has also appeared on television in HBO’s The Wire. Mr. Williams received his B.F.A. from SUNY Purchase, and is a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Directors and Designers
Timothy Douglas (Director) served as Associate Artistic Director for Actors Theatre of Louisville and was recently named Artistic Director of Chicago’s Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. He has directed nearly 100 stage productions, with recent credits including his acclaimed Caribbean-inspired Much Ado About Nothing for The Folger Theatre, Permanent Collection for Roundhouse Theater, the world premiere of August Wilson’s Radio Golf for Yale Repertory Theatre, Insurrection for Theatre Alliance (two Helen Hayes Award nominations), and a premiere translation of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm Off Broadway for Oslo Elsewhere. Other directing credits include the world premiere of Line in the Sand for Virginia Stage Company; Good Breeding for American Conservatory Theater; Gem of the Ocean, Trouble in Mind, Radio Golf, and the world premiere of The Night is a Child with Milwaukee Repertory Theatre; the west coast premiere of A Feminine Ending at South Coast Repertory Theatre and Portland Center Stage; Pride and Prejudice at Playmakers Repertory Company; In the Blood at the Guthrie Theater; Assassins, Insurrection, and Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Berkshire Theatre Festival; Crowns, Shakespeare’s R&J, Sorrows and Rejoicings, A Raisin in the Sun at the City Theatre; The Crucible, Jitney, and Intimate Apparel at Syracuse Stage; Bocón! with Mark Taper Forum (Mellon Fellow/Director in Residence 1994-1997); The Game of Love and Chance at the San Jose Repertory Theatre; Portia Coughlin and The Cripple of Inishmaan at Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre; Valley Song at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; and Mules with Downstage (New Zealand). Mr. Douglas is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.
Dan Conway (Set Designer) has designed well over a dozen productions at The Studio Theatre including Legends!, Radio Golf, Take Me Out, Runaway Home, Lobby Hero, A New Brain, Seven Guitars, Jitney, Two Sisters and a Piano, and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, along with subUrbia and The Desk Set, for which he received Helen Hayes Award nominations. He received the 2009 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Set Design for Stunning at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the 2000 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Set Design for Ambrosio at Rep Stage. Recent credits include Chess and Sunset Blvd. at Signature Theatre; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Round House Theatre and the premiere of My Name is Asher Lev for The Arden Theatre. Off Broadway he designed the premieres of Horton Foote’s Lily Dale and Terrence McNally’s Prelude Und Liebestod on Theatre Row. Other Off Broadway credits include work for The Chelsea Theatre, Equity Library Theatre, The Manhattan Class Company, Circle Rep, and Soho Rep. For the Cleveland Playhouse, where he served as Resident Designer, he created sets for the premiere of the Reynolds Price trilogy New Music. Mr. Conway is the Head of Design and Production and the Resident Designer for the professional training program at The University of Maryland.
Michael Giannitti (Lighting Designer) has designed 36 productions at The Studio Theatre including American Buffalo, Reasons to Be Pretty, In the Red and Brown Water, Legends!, Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Seafarer, The Road To Mecca, Shining City, The Pillowman, Red Light Winter, Fat Pig, Afterplay, The Russian National Postal Service, Galileo, and Seven Guitars, which earned him a Helen Hayes Award nomination. He designed lighting for the original Broadway production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and for its pre-Broadway tour which included Arena Stage. He has designed extensively for Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Trinity Repertory Theatre, Capital Repertory Theatre, Shakespeare & Company, Weston Playhouse, and the Dorset Theatre Festival, where he is Producing Director. Mr. Giannitti has also designed for Chautauqua Theatre Company, Virginia Stage, Indiana Repertory Theatre, Portland Stage Company, George Street Playhouse, Jomandi, Yale Repertory Theatre, Olney Theatre Center, and the Spoleto Festival. New York dance lighting credits include Dance Theatre Workshop, Dancespace, The Joyce, The Kitchen, and P.S. 122. He has been on the faculty at Bennington College since 1992. As a Fulbright Senior Specialist, he taught at the National University of Art, Theatre, and Cinema in Bucharest, Romania and at the New Zealand Drama School.
Reggie Ray (Costume Designer) ) has designed numerous productions at The Studio Theatre including In the Red and Brown Water, Radio Golf, My Children! My Africa!, Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins (Helen Hayes Award), Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, Take Me Out, Topdog/Underdog, Lobby Hero, Hambone, Jitney, Betty’s Summer Vacation, SLAM!, Seven Guitars, Hip 2: Birth of the Boom, Two Trains Running, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, The Old Settler (Helen Hayes Award nomination), and Spunk (Helen Hayes Award). He also designed Venus, Terrence McNally: Five Short Plays, A Language of Their Own and Capote at Yaddo for The Studio 2ndStage. Other design credits include Stick Fly and Sophisticated Ladies at Arena Stage; King Hedley II at Signature Theatre Company in New York, and Emergence-See at The Public Theater. Mr. Ray is a faculty member of the Howard University Theatre Arts Department and a member of USA Local 829 IATSE.
Erik Trester (Sound Designer) works as a sound and video designer throughout the Washington DC area. At The Studio Theatre, he has designed sound for The Solid Gold Cadillac and The Long Christmas Ride Home, along with numerous Studio 2ndStage productions including Passing Strange, Fucking A, Jerry Springer: the Opera, Reefer Madness, All That I Will Ever Be, Breath Boom, Dog Sees God, Autobahn, and Terrorism. He has also designed sound for Washington Shakespeare Company’s productions of Hapgood, Caligulia, and Private Lives. He holds a Masters of Science in Multimedia Systems from Trinity College, Dublin.
The death of his best friend’s father Shango causes Marcus to reflect on the death of his own father, Elegba. Although he loves his mother and best friends Osha and Shaunta, he longs for someone to teach him to become a man. He finds a measure of solace in Ogun Size, whose brother Oshoosi had been intimate with Elegba. But when Marcus’s friends see him kiss Ogun, the gesture of comfort forces Marcus and his best friends to confront his homosexuality—an act that is complicated by the fact that Osha is in love with Marcus. Alienated and alone, Marcus becomes involved with a mysterious man he meets on the beach. When it turns out that this man is also seeing Osha, tensions and secrets bubble to the surface, and the life stories of Osha, Ogun, Marcus, Elegba, and the mysterious man intertwine to form the satisfying conclusion of The Brother/Sister Plays.
A Landmark Trilogy at The Studio Theatre
Much like August Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh cycle which explored the history of African Americans throughout the twentieth century, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays, delves into the African American experience, albeit from a twenty-first century point of view. Since the premiere of The Brothers Size in 2008, The Studio Theatre’s commitment to McCraney’s astounding series of plays has manifested in two memorable productions.
The Mythic Housing Projects of Louisiana
“I began to investigate how to use ancient myths and stories to tell urban ones. I found that the stories are all still there. So I began taking old stories from the canon of the Yoruba and splicing them, placing them down in a mythological Housing Project in the South. This made the stories feel both old and new, as if they stood on an ancient history but were exploring the here and now.”
—Tarell Alvin McCraney, on the setting for The Brother/Sister Plays
Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet is set in the projects of Louisiana’s Pre-Katrina New Orleans, home to three of the United States’ most notoriously crime-ridden housing projects. Magnolia, Melpomene, and Calliope Housing Projects’ high homicide rates spawned New Orleans’ nickname as “Murder Capital, USA.” However, these infamous government housing complexes were designed to create a unique and supportive community. In place of the dark stairwells that creep up the high-rise buildings more common in the urban north, Louisiana’s projects feature sidewalks, porches, and three or four-story housing. These pseudo-suburban buildings are surrounded by grass, and each complex has a large open common area at its center, giving its residents ample opportunities to interact with (and keep tabs on) each other.
McCraney emphasizes the community-centric atmosphere of these projects in his plays while acknowledging their violent realities. He dramatizes the supportive and connected community within these historically violent neighborhoods that the multiple generations of this trilogy call home. These characters rejoice in each other’s joys and share in one another’s woes, creating a community that lives in conversation—sometimes tragic, sometimes resilient—with the violence that prominently occupies national headlines.
"I was brought up near the tropic of Capricorn, hurricanes common as mosquito bites. Sea breezes strong enough to send you sailing and starry nights that made the voyages of Columbus seem distant and not yet present. Yet there in the midst of that beauty were drug lords who ran the street corner like Wall Street and Beirut combined."
—Tarell Alvin McCraney, on growing up in the Liberty projects of Miami, FL
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney set his Brother/Sister trilogy in a single community—the projects of fictional San Pere, Louisiana. Near the bayou, sweltering and sticky, this tryptich plays out the lives, fears, and desires of three generations.
In the Red and Brown Water tells the entwined stories of Oya—a young athlete pulled between a future as a track star and her responsibilities to her ailing mother (not to mention the studly Shango and stuttering but devoted Ogun)—and Elegba, a young man with a sweet tooth, a penchant for trouble, and a dream of muddy waters that presages Oya’s tragedy.
The Brothers Size picks up years later with brothers Ogun and Oshoosi Size. Oshoosi is on parole, working in Ogun’s garage and on an almost even keel, when his best friend and former cellmate Elegba crashes back into his life. When the consequences of their adventures threaten to send both Elegba and Oshoosi back to jail, Ogun tells his brother to flee.
Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet focuses on a new generation of San Pere. At Shango’s funeral, Elegba’s son Marcus is jarred by the image of Ogun weeping for his former rival. As he starts to remember his dreams—and understand who’s in them and what he’s saying—Marcus begins to put together the story of his past, and in doing so, build a foundation for his future.
Characters dart in and out of these stories—we get an earful about Marcus’s mother in the first play, and an earful from her in the third; Marcus takes after the father he’s never met…and in some productions of the full trilogy, is played the same actor. For a primer on the community of San Pere and how their paths overlap, intersect, and entwine, click here.