'Marcus; or the secret of sweet' builds a community on and off stage

Nathan Barlow as the title character
Nathan Barlow as the title character in "Marcus; or the secret of sweet" being performed by the Pillsbury House Theatre in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio.
Travis Anderson / Courtesy Pills

By a storm-lashed bayou, two menacing figures lurch toward each other in the rain.

As thunder and lightning send a torrent of sound and light down upon them, they appear ready fight. Then the men grab each other — but they are hugging, not wrestling.

As Marcus Eshu awakes from a cryptic dream, he begins asking everyone what it means. He's had the same dream over and over again. Most people who he asks in his small town quickly change the subject. But his friend Shaunta Iyun finally tells him she thinks he is struggling with the idea he is probably gay.

"Marcus; or the secret of sweet," is a complex exploration of coming of age and sexuality in the African-American community. It's also an exploration of the good and bad of small town life, where everyone knows — or thinks they know — everyone else. The new production, written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, tells the story of a young man wrestling with his identity as he comes of age in a small town in the Louisiana bayou.

"Marcus" is the last play in McCraney's "Brother/Sister" trilogy, all set in his hometown of San Pere, La. The Pillsbury House Theatre and The Mount Curve Company production opens this weekend at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

Joy Dolo plays Shanta Iyun
Actor Joy Dolo plays Shanta Iyun, in "Marcus; or the secret of sweet," being performed by the Pillsbury House Theatre in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio.
Euan Kerr / MPR News

Actor Joy Dolo, who plays Shaunta, said the play is about what goes on in a community.

"A slice of life," she said, "but also the discovery of a boy finding his self-identity, and being OK with that."

In the final runthrough of "Marcus" before the production moves to the Guthrie, all was quiet Sunday when internationally acclaimed director Marion McClinton spoke to the cast.

"OK, this runthrough is for you," he said, telling the actors to ignore others who came for a sneak peak of the show. "You guys, this is your show. It ain't my show. It's barely Tarell's. It's your show. The show works, because you make it work. OK, I'm done."

The play is layered with meaning. It weaves the names of African gods, and the stories of the bayou with references to 70's disco and Oprah.

Marcus, played by Nathan Barlow, spends time walking alone by the bayou, wrestling with his thoughts, wishing they would leave him.

"Wash into the waters and drain away," Marcus says. "That the disappointed 'You strange boy stares' would just light up and leave, not look down on you wondering 'What you doing? What you thinking? What you dreaming?' Specially when you don't know your own self." The production is the culmination of a five-year project by Pillsbury House to produce all three of McCraney's"Brother/Sister" plays at the Guthrie. McClinton, who directed all three, admits he is sad that it is coming to an end.

"I think the trilogy has forced me into doing my very best work," McClinton said. "And I think the other two 'In the Red and Brown Water' and 'Brother Size' stands amongst the best I've ever done. And 'Marcus' is starting to feel that way too."

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

That's a strong statement from the Obie Award-winning director, who is known for having premiered a number of his friend August Wilson's 10-play American Century Cycle. McClinton said McCraney's plays remind him of Wilson's work.

"Not in style and not in character," he said. "But in the sense of creating a community for the plays to exist."

McCraney's stories of the small community of San Pere also allow the playwright to address a difficult subject, the director said.

"He also deals with homophobia in the black community," McClinton said. "It's strong. Homophophia is very strong in the black community, especially down south."

Despite such tension, the play demonstrates how a small community can be supportive.

"Another thing I love about this play is once this young man figures out his sexuality the story doesn't stop there," said veteran actor James A. Williams, who has been in all three of the Pillsbury House productions of the Brother/Sister trilogy. "The story becomes 'Now how do I fit into this larger world?" "Marcus" is blunt, startling, and profane at times. But it's also caring, and funny. McClinton, Dolo, and James say it great African-American theater.

James said the theater production is for everyone.

"We are inviting you to come and learn something," he said, "not necessarily about us, but to learn something about the human condition."

Pillsbury House Theatre trailer: "Marcus; or the secret of sweet"

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