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In the Red & Brown Water

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The Young Vic has been flooded with water for this new play by black American dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose Olivier-nominated The Brothers Size returns for a season in the smaller Maria studio next week. The setting is San Pere in Louisiana, so we are in serious levee country; New Orleans, like Stockholm, floats on water.

And in water, too. Who can forget the floods? But the water is also an elemental presence in the tale of Oya, the young girl with fleet heels who dreams of becoming a champion athlete only to find herself swamped in rejection by the state, demands of rival menfolk, the elegiac warnings of her Creole superstitions, and her own femininity, the consequences of menstruation and infertility.

We are not exactly by the waters of Babylon, but Walter Meierjohann’s ambitious production, flecked with the jazz trumpet and piano riffs of near-legendary Abram Wilson, has the sawn-off epic intimations of both Buchner’s Woyzeck and Lorca’s Yerma in its bitter romanticism and echoing barrenness in an expectant community.

We sit around the edge of the vast paddling pool, pinned back by designer Miriam Buether’s chipboard panels and, at ground level, Jean Kalman’s lighting rig which introduced itself smartly to my head after the interval. Audibility is a bit fraught with the resulting flabby acoustic and the continual sloshing sound of the actors. But it’s easy to understand their objective third person pronouncements, snippets of self-description.

Oya is played with a lithe physicality and deeply troubled sensitivity by Ony Uhiara, beset by her two main men, Ashley Walters as the slick soldier, Javone Prince as the dogged car mechanic, while magnificent Cecilia Noble lays down the law with a huge hip wiggle as her overbearing godmother. This is a play of moonlit visions, secular ritual, hot gospel and smooth lullaby, a completely original way of anatomising a tragedy of broken dreams.

McCraney was recently described in the New York Times as “a hard-core linguistic scavenger”; we’ll see more evidence of his demotic, street-savvy range when his portrait of uptown drag queens and the men who love them, Wig Out!, arrives at the Royal Court later this year. Meanwhile, the Young Vic proclaims an outstanding new talent, even if the show itself is too damp and fuzzy.

- Michael Coveney


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