Pillsbury House play deals with sprinters and gods

In the Red and Brown Water
Christiana Clark playes Oya, a talented sprinter, in Pillsbury House Theater's productions of "In the Red and Brown Water" being presented at the Guthrie Theater
Image courtesy Pillsbury House Theater

While the crowds are flocking to see the gods tussle in the movie version of "Thor," the Pillsbury House Theater in Minneapolis is about to put its own spin on struggling deities. "In the Red and Brown Water," being presented at the Guthrie Theater, uses West African traditions to tell a very modern American story.

At a rehearsal of "In the Red and Brown Water" at the Pillsbury House Theater in South Minneapolis, it quickly becomes clear there's more here than initially meets the eye. The actors boisterously working in this cramped room are preparing the Minnesota premier of Terrell Alvin McCraney's work. He's the Louisiana playwright who some are calling the new August Wilson.

So it's significant that Marion McClinton is in this room. He's known for his work directing Wilson's plays, even garnering a Tony nomination for his production of "King Hedley II" on Broadway. He said he's wanted to direct a McCraney play for some time.

"What Terrell is doing is doing what the best playwrights do: They create their own mythology," he said. "They take the current mythology of the world, look at it, and take it and put it in a different context. That gives us a whole new way of looking at ourselves, and only the best writers can do that."

Cast members of "In the Red and Brown Water" at a read-through at the Pillsbury House rehearsal space
Image courtesy Pillsbury House Theater

The mythology here mixes ancient and modern. "In the Red and Brown Water" tells the story of Oya, a young track star who dreams her sprinting talents will earn her a college scholarship, and a ticket out of the Bayou.

Christiana Clarke plays Oya. She said "In the Red and Brown Water" takes on even more depth because everyone in the play represents an Orisha, a West African deity.

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"The characters are named specifically of these Orishas and Yoruba names that have functions and that have specific lives within the universe," she said. "Yet at the same time they are just this guy, this girl from the block."

Oya is the goddess of the winds. In the play she ends up torn between loving two men: Ogun, named for the god of iron, and Shango, named for the god of fire and lightning. Mixing things up in both good ways and bad is Elegba, the trickster.

But when Oya's mother gets very sick and needs her daughter's care, McClinton said she faces difficult choices, both in life and love.

"What Terrell is doing is doing what the best playwrights do: they create their own mythology."

"There could be misconception of looking at Oya as a victim in the play, but she's not," said McClinton. "She's like my mother. Every trial and tribulation my mother went through made her stronger, didn't make her weaker. And made her more capable instead of less capable to deal with the world."

In the play McCraney uses a striking mixture of drama and storytelling. Not only do characters deliver their lines, they voice their stage directions even as they move.

"Oya laughs to herself," said Oya.

"And Elly see it," responded Greta Oglesby in the role of Oya's Aunt Elegua. "How could she not?"

"Ooo! Oya-girl! Oya-girl!" she continued, addressing Oya directly. "What you coming from smiling like that? Tell me! I love women's secrets!"

Like all the actors in the play, Clarke and Oglesby were handpicked by McClinton for this play. He didn't hold an audition, just cast people he thought would be best for the job, including Sonja Parks who plays Oya's mom. Parks said this play has another hugely significant element.

"It's about black people, thank you," she said. "It's about time somebody just said it out loud."

The Pillsbury House Theater draws good crowds to its home stage. Now the cast members, and Marion McClinton in particular, say they are looking forward to taking "In the Red and Brown Water" to the Guthrie.

"It's hard to find a black actor on the stage. It's hard to find a black actor as an usher there," he said pointedly. "And that's sad."

Marion McClinton
Tony-nominated director Marion McClinton is guiding the Pillsbury show at the Guthrie.
Image courtesy Pillsbury House Theater

The Guthrie Theater press office begs to differ, pointing to recent productions of "Caroline and Change," "The Scottsboro Boys" and the productions by Penumbra Theater.

But "In the Red and Brown Water is different, according Sonja Parks. She said she is tired of productions about African-Americans always being about being downtrodden.

"And this play has some serious joy in it," she said. "Even as these people are going through their ups and downs, they don't forget the joy of life. It's the inextricable companions each other, joy and pain."

And the two sides of that coin is what the Pillsbury House Theater will present at the Guthrie.