An Exclusive Interview With The Playwright
An Exclusive Interview With The Playwright
Tarell Alvin McCraney on In the Red and Brown Water
The figures come from the Yoruba Cosmology, a West African religion that made its way to the New World mainly through the slave trade. It’s maintained for the most part in African American and African Caribbean communities, which today remain true to that origin culture. As a kid in Miami (which some call North Cuba, I grew up with these stories, the folk lore, the legends, the Orisha. Cuban and Haitian and Brazilian practitioners of the religion in their American forms, Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomblé, respectively, helped shape the world of my childhood. Stories of Ogun and Oya and Shango were all a part of that world, like Hans Christian Anderson’s tales are for others. As I got older and wanted to tell those stories, they began to take shape as plays. The characters began to speak after I began exploring what it would be like to put them on stage as plays. I had seen them done as dances since I was about fourteen, specifically the story of Oya. I wondered what they would say if they had lines, and then the stories began to match up and relate to modern day in ways I didn't expect. It was exciting, scary, sad, and beautiful.
When I write a play, if I cannot understand it in the space, I stop writing it. I don’t write a play until I know what it can be like, can do, can create in the live space. The play is my physical response to the space.
The cultures I borrowed from or gleaned in order to write the trilogy were never disparate. They are blended to create the world in which the stories live. I didn’t make the connections—it’s reality. Western culture filled with Latin and Greco-Roman influences, the African Diaspora forced with the Slave Trade touching Greek mythology—what we know now as a certain culture is all a blend. If you look at cultural myth and tradition there is an Oya, a Shango, an Ogun. Read it. Some people find it too foreign, too unfamiliar, but in Greek mythology there is Aphrodite, Ares and Hephaestus, all in the same stories some continents apart. It’s very universal. Same stories. Different names.
Some songs I would hear at every summer BBQ when I was a kid, or some you hear at baby showers. But at every performance the music changes because I ask directors what song is more engaging to them in this production. We look around. Sometimes we find new things, sometimes we love the old.
Race is a part of the American dialogue. The play allows for all the tapestry of America to be a part of it. This is an American Story.
Plays are questions. One should leave In the Red and Brown Water with strong questions. My part is only one small part of the whole conversation. The whole conversation is between the audience and the play. What mothers, sisters, daughters, sons, aunts, and fathers say during and after the play is a part of that conversation—an important part. It’s what makes the live theatre exciting and important. If the play were a complete conversation it would get boring after a while. Listening to other people talk to themselves isn't always the greatest. But when the play talks, asks, engages you and you are asked to speak talk engage back then there is something else, then there is discourse. The audiences at Studio for The Brothers Size were incredible for this. They spoke right back to the play and to this day the actors, to whom I am close, and we were amazed and excited and fell in love with those conversations. We looked forward to them.
Tarell on NPR's All Things Considered!
Tarell recently discussed his accomplishments, The Brother/Sister plays, and the Theatre. Click here to hear the interview!
Raushanah Simmons (Oya) recently appeared in Mother Courage with the New York Shakespeare Festival; ScreenPlay at the Flea Theater; The Tempest at Public Theater Shakespeare Lab; The Lesser Seductions of History at Flux Ensemble Theatre; Last Call on Bourbon Street and Anchors with Living Image Arts and Twelfth Night and The Tempest at Pulse Ensemble Theater. Film and television credits include Law & Order: SVU, Sex in City, What Would You Do, See You in September and many television commercials. She is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association.
Mark Hairston (Elegba) a DC native, was last seen at The Studio Theater in its 30th Anniversary Season productions of My Children! My Africa! and The History Boys. His recent credits include The Rant with New Jersey Repertory Company; Fly at the Vineyard Playhouse and The Persians for People’s Light and Theatre Company. Other credits include Twelfth Night, performed at Shakespeare’s Globe, Blues for Mister Charlie, Topdog/Underdog, Much Ado About Nothing, and Pericles. He has also performed at Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theater Company and The Kennedy Center. He received his B.F.A. in Acting from Rutgers University and was classically trained at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.
Jahi A. Kearse (Ogun) recently appeared as Monster in The Studio 2ndStage’s production of Fucking A. He appeared in the award-winning Topdog/Underdog, directed by Joy Zinoman, at The Studio Theatre and Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. He was also seen in Slam at The Studio Theatre. Other Washington DC credits include Cool Pappa’s Party at MetroStage and Pippin at Round House Theatre. His regional credits include Seussical the Musical, Five Guys Named Mo, Souls Possessed, The Glass Menagerie, The Whiz, Godspell, StickFly, Sty of the Blind Pig, Five Fingers of Funk and Conversations with Ice.
Yaegel T. Welch (Shango) was most recently seen in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Bear Country, and Geva Theater’s Clementine and the Lower Nine. Off Broadway he has been seen in the Lincoln Center’s Fly, with The Crossroads Theatre. Other credits include The Revenger’s Tragedy at Red Bull Theatre and The Darker Face of the Earth, directed by Trazana Beverly, with TWAS Productions. Regionally, he has appeared in The Piano Lesson at The Arden Theatre (Barrymore Award nomination); My Children! My Africa! at The Studio Theatre and Wilma Theatre; Fences at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre; A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Bridgeport Free Shakespeare Festival; Fences with Ruben Santiago-Hudson at Boston’s Shubert Theatre, Cobb at the Chautauqua Institution and Professional Skepticism at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Mr. Welch’s has a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Morehouse College, an M.F.A. in Acting from Brandeis University and an M.F.A. from The Shakespeare Theatre’s Academy for Classical Acting.
Denise Diggs (Mama Moja/The Woman Who Reminds You) has appeared in Trudy Blue, Spell #7 and The Old Settler as Elizabeth Bourney at The Studio Theatre. She has performed featured roles at Arena Stage, Round House Theatre, Olney Theatre Center, Theatre of the First Amendment, Center Stage, Baltimore Shakespeare Theatre, Everyman Theatre, and La Jolla Playhouse. She had recurring roles in the Emmy award winning series Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner and The Wire. Ms. Diggs teaches at The Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory, Baltimore School for the Arts and Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Deidra LaWan-Starnes (Aunt Elegua) was most recently seen in Gem of the Ocean with the St. Louis Black Rep. Her Studio Theatre productions include Radio Golf, The Old Settler and Seven Guitars. Other stage credits include Lysistrata with Synetic Theater and Georgetown University; King Lear with the Folger Theatre; Intimate Apparel (Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Play), A Raisin in the Sun, The Gingham Dog, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document…, Two Trains Running, Personal History, Spunk with African Continuum Theatre; The Violet Hour, Anna Lucasta with Rep Stage; Blues for an Alabama Sky with Everyman Theatre; The Old Settler with Portland Center Stage; The Taming of the Shrew with Cumberland Theatre; Hurly Burly with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company; A Raisin in the Sun, Doubt, and Stuff Happens with Olney Theatre Center and for colored girls who have considered suicide… with New Federal Theatre. Television and film credits include Ladder 49, Scream for Millions, America’s Most Wanted and Playing the Game. She received her B.A. in Theatre from the University of Maryland and her M.F.A. in Drama from The University of Connecticut.
Shaunte Corrina Tabb (Nia) is appearing at The Studio Theatre for the first time. She just finished performing in Signature Theatre’s Showboat. Her favorite credits include the international tour of Aida; Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Olney Theatre Center; All Shook Up, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Dreamgirls with Toby’s Dinner Theater; The Children’s Hour for Artscentric Productions and Once on this Island and Smokey Joe’s Café with Winters Lane Productions.
Shannon Alexandria Lillie Dorsey (Shun) makes her Studio Theatre debut with In the Red and Brown Water. For The Studio 2ndstage, she appeared in Breath, Boom! Recent credits include Synetic Theater’s Carmen and A Midsummer’s Night Dream at The Kennedy Center and national tours of 1001 Black Inventions and Sex Signals. Carmen was nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Ensemble. Ms. Dorsey received her B.A. in Theater and African American Studies from Temple University.
Michael Harris (O Li Roon/The Man from State) makes his first appearance at The Studio Theatre with In the Red and Brown Water. He performed in Dirty Blonde at Signature Theatre; in Tartuffe with Journeymen Theater and Late Bloomers & Glory Days for the Capital Fringe Festival, as well as being a teacher/performer with Baltimore Improv Group. He is a graduate of the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts.
Ricardo Evans (The Egungun) makes his Studio Theatre debut with In the Red and Brown Water. His credits include Disney’s Mulan and Ferdinand the Bull with Imagination Stage; The Oedipus Plays for The Shakespeare Theatre Company; Auld Lang Syne at African-American Collective Theatre and Skywriter with Angry Young Theatre Company. He is a teaching artist with Bill’s Buddies, the Folger Shakespeare Library, president of the board of directors of the Actors’ Center and a graduate of the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts.
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Director and Designers
Director and Designers
Serge Seiden (Director) most recently directed The Year of Magical Thinking for The Studio Theatre. His other Studio Theatre credits include Grey Gardens, My Children! My Africa!, Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, which received 3 Helen Hayes Awards and 5 Helen Hayes nominations including Outstanding Director and Outstanding Resident Play, The Long Christmas Ride Home, Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, Black Milk, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The York Realist and A Class Act. He also directed A New Brain, which received a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Resident Musical; Two Sisters and a Piano; Blue Heart; The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Old Wicked Songs, which received seven Helen Hayes Nominations, including Outstanding Director. For The Studio Theatre 2ndStage, Mr. Seiden directed All That I Will Ever Be, This is Our Youth, Ecstasy, Mad Forest, Hot Fudge, Sincerity Forever and Durang/Durang. As an actor, he appeared in The Studio Theatre productions of Shooting Magda, The Gifts of the Magi, The American Plan and numerous productions at other area theatres including The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Beggar’s Opera and DC Cabaret Company’s A Dance Against Darkness for which he was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. Mr. Seiden has taught for thirteen years at The Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory.
Luciana Stecconi (Setting) recently designed sets for The Year of Magical Thinking, Stoop Stories, Amnesia Curiosa, created and performed by rainpan43, Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins and Lypsinka: The Passion of the Crawford at The Studio Theatre. In addition, she has designed A Beautiful View, All That I Will Ever Be and Crestfall for The Studio 2ndStage. Ms. Stecconi’s regional credits include Zero Hour at Theater J; Scenes from an Execution and The Two Orphans for Brandeis Theatre Company and Wandering Alice at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Her awards include the 2006 Ira Gershwin Prize. She received her M.F.A. in Theatre Arts from Brandeis University.
Michael Giannitti (Lighting) is the Resident Lighting Designer at The Studio Theatre; he has designed over 30 productions including 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 on Broadway for 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 and Weston Playhouse. Mr. Giannitti has also designed for Virginia Stage, Indiana Repertory Theatre, Portland Stage Company, George Street Playhouse, Jomandi, Yale Repertory Theatre and Olney Theatre Center. New York dance lighting credits include Dance Theatre Workshop, Dancespace, The Joyce, The Kitchen and P.S. 122. Additional regional venues include the Spoleto Festival and Walker Art Center. 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 (Costumes) most recently designed The Studio Theatre productions of Radio Golf, My Children! My Africa! and Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins (Helen Hayes Nomination). He has also designed Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom for The Studio Theatre. He has previously worked at The Studio Theatre as the Costume Design Associate for Ivanov and designed costumes for 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 designed Venus, Terrence McNally: Five Short Plays, A Language of Their Own and Capote at Yaddo for Studio 2ndStage. Other design credits include Stick Fly at Arena Stage; King Hedley II at Signature Theatre 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.
Eric Shimelonis (Original Music) previously designed sound and composed original music for The Studio Theatre’s productions of The Year of Magical Thinking and Stoop Stories. Other recent productions include Post No Bills for Rattlestick Theatre; Stoop Stories at the Goodman Theatre; Shotgun with Southern Rep; Almost An Evening with the Atlantic Theatre Company and 45 Bleecker; Human Error for the City Theatre in Pittsburgh and Fuerza Bruta at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York. He composed music for the film Winter Passing, along with numerous award-winning documentaries for the National Audubon Society and for the Houston Zoo. He was the assistant director for Stravinsky's L'histoire du Soldat with the Philadelphia and Boston Symphony Orchestras, and he is having his Carnegie Hall debut in January, with F. Murray Abraham performing his song cycle Elusive Things based on poems by Ilene Starger. Mr. Shimelonis has been awarded grants by the NEA and ASCAP, and he was nominated for a 2007 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Sound Design.
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The Playwright: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Exploding onto the American theatre scene in 2008, Tarell Alvin McCraney shared with New York and London audiences a fresh, young voice with a surprisingly nostalgic twist. As graduate of Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program and the recipient of their Cole Porter Playwriting Award, he has made a splash with his intriguing theatrical work. His recent work includes the play Wig Out!, a humorous look at life in the New York drag ball scene. He was honored in May 2009 by being the first to receive The New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award.
McCraney’s work is often biographical. He was raised in the projects of South Miami, Florida. Growing up, McCraney watched his mother struggle with HIV and substance abuse, which often required him to step in as a parent to his three younger siblings: Jason, Paul, and Keonme. Despite what Tarell has described as a “close relationship,” his mother Marion McCraney had to give up Tarell, Paul, and Keonme. The three boys lived with their father and were separated from their other brother, Jason, until Marion’s health improved.
McCraney has said that his school years were difficult. He was targeted by bullies, who mocked his height (today, he stands at 6’3”) and his graceful physicality (he once considered pursuing dance as a career). During his freshman year in high school, McCraney connected with a local theatre program, Village South, and its charismatic leader, solo performance artist Teo Castellanos. Castellanos’ program, which focused on HIV prevention and awareness, nourished McCraney both theatrically and emotionally. The young playwright insists that “theatre saved my life.” Under Castellanos’ guidance, McCraney was able to accept his homosexuality, as well as his calling to work in the theatre. By the end of the program, he had written his first play, Crack House, which he performed at a substance abuse program.
In order to pursue his new passion, McCraney transferred to the New World School of the Arts for his sophomore year, where he devoted himself to the pursuit of acting. He went on to study at DePaul University in Chicago, where he worked for several years as an actor, earning the prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award nomination for his performance in The Northlight Theatre’s Blue/Orange. During his undergraduate years, McCraney also continued to develop his enthusiasm for writing, and impressed Yale Drama School with a play called Without/Sin.
During his junior year at DePaul, however, McCraney’s long-ailing mother died, which forced the siblings to confront their difficult family history. These experiences inspired the Brother/Sister Plays. The first, The Brothers Size, performed during the 2007-2008 season at The Studio Theatre, explores McCraney’s experience growing up with brothers. In the Red and Brown Water, a prequel to The Brothers Size, is a tribute to McCraney’s mother and sister. The final play in the trilogy, Marcus: Or, the Secret of Sweet, is McCraney’s exploration of his own coming of age. The trilogy focuses on the tightly-knit fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana, a setting woven from bayou culture and McCraney’s urban hometown, Miami.
– By Reagan Copeland