Wayne State theater brings Yoruba legend to the street
By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen
“You are crumping and I don’t want that.”
Director Aku Kadogo does not think the music initially selected to accompany a scene in the play “In the Red and Brown Water” is affecting the cast appropriately. The sound is eliminated and the next scene proceeds. Though small in frame, Kadogo is a powerful force, alternately jubilantly and fiercely exhorting Wayne State University student actors to give her “more” — vocally, physically and emotionally — on the stage. The cast responds.
“In the Red and Brown Water” is the first in a theatrical trilogy written by Tarell Alvin McCraney called the Brother/Sister plays. McCraney has won numerous awards including a $6525,000 MacArthur Fellowship (Genius Grant) in 2013 for having shown “exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”
“‘In the Red and Brown Water’ is … a coming-of-age piece based on Yoruba myth,” says Kadogo. “(It’s) a contemporary story with the DNA of memory of what came across the Atlantic. So McCraney’s named all of the characters after Yoruba deities.”
The play centers on Oya (played by 18-year-old WSU freshman and recent Cass Tech graduate Kadijah Perkins), the Yoruba goddess of wind embodied as high school track star. In the first act, Oya is given an opportunity to take a track scholarship to the state university. She chooses to stay at home — in the projects — to care for her sick mother. When her mother dies, Oya falls for Shango (Donnevan Tolbert), god of thunder and lightning, who soon leaves to join the army. She then, reluctantly, gets together with Ogun, (Zyle Cook), the god of fire, a mechanic.
“Ogun,” Kadogo says “is the steady hardworking brother down at the auto shop who can take care of Oya.”
With Oya and Ogun, Kadogo believes McCraney wanted to depict relationships that don’t always work out.
“He’s the good guy; he will take care of you, but the sex ain’t happening, the life ain’t happening,” says Kadogo. “Every time Shango returns home from duty for a spell, Oya is drawn back to him. In the myth … Shango takes Oya from Ogun.”
Tragically, Oya is unable to conceive a child, which in her neighborhood — described by the cast as being like a “village” — leaves her with no way to validate herself in the eyes of her peers or to “keep” Shango, who impregnates another girl. Revealing that all does not end well for Oya still doesn’t spoil the play’s dramatic conclusion.
“McCraney is 33.That means he grew up with all the issues — the crack, the drugs, all the things our community has been dealing with — but he has written it from his perspective of who could escape and how they left and who stayed behind in these situations,” says Kadogo. “The one guy who gets out is the guy who goes to the army — whether that’s healthy or not, no judgement on anybody. The girls who come up pregnant at 16, that’s their badge of honor. I think these are things young people deal with realistically today. That’s why I am interested in the work.”
Born in Detroit, Kadogo has been living in Australia since 1978.
She left Detroit for New York, when she was young, to pursue her theatrical career. She performed in the original Broadway cast of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuff” by Ntozake Shange. When she journeyed to Australia with the play, she met a man she would soon marry and decided to make that country her new home. Since then, she has worked as a stage/film performer, director, choreographer and educator in three countries (the U.S. Australia and South Korea) on three different continents.
From 2006-2011, she returned to the U.S. to serve as the director for WSU’s Black Theater, after which she taught at Yongin University, South Korea. Although Kadogo selected the play in 2011, before she left for South Korea, none of the other faculty took on the project. The play is a challenge — balancing overt and stylized allegory with raw street talk and urban rhythms. Kadogo returned from Australia to direct the show (and visit her parents). The student actors couldn’t be more excited.
“Working with her has been such an adventure,” says Perkins (Oya), “because she’s such a free character and it allows us to be free and bring out things we didn’t even feel we could bring out around other people. She unlocks this passion we all have that allows us to work off each other bringing a new energy to all of our rehearsals.”
Although, some of character’s life challenges are foreign to Perkins, others are all-too familiar. Perkins had a chance to study acting at a university in New York, but was unable to go because she didn’t qualify for enough scholarship money. “I had to make some hardcore decisions … and ended up staying here. I feel where Oya is coming from, wanting to get out of where she’s lived her entire life and being somewhat disappointed and yet learning from that experience.”
The feeling is echoed by cast mate Dante Jones. “I’m from the hood,” he says. “I can really see this happening to me.” Jones has infused his portrayal of Elegba, a character with ambiguous sexuality, with experiences in his own life. “I’ve always (wanted) to breakdown the stereotypes of gay men,” Jones proclaims. “It annoys me; either I’m really feminine or really masculine, I don’t like that. From when I was young and first knew that I liked men, I always sought to be somebody that nobody could tell — to be a mold of the two or completely undetectable. I play (Elegba) in a way that’s completely undetectable, just walking that line. That’s what I try to do in real life; that’s what I’m trying to do with this character.”
Without the offending track playing, Kadogo instructs the cast to dance without the music. Soon, not only is the cast dancing, they are humming, beatboxing, singing — many melodies in harmony, many rhythms in sync. “Forget the music,” she elatedly exclaims. “I just saw you all come alive. You’ll make the music yourselves. That is what theater is all about. That’s when theater is magic.”
Performances of Tarell McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water” at the Bonstelle Theatre (3424 Woodward Avenue) run from Feb. 7-16. Purchase tickets or learn more at: theatre.wayne.edu/ourshows.php.