Third-Year Actors Bring Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘In the Red and Brown Water’ to Lenfest Center for the Arts

BY Paola Alexandra Soto, November 27, 2018

“I mean I think it’s always silly to try to divorce yourself from characters you create, right? Because if they don’t stand on humanity, who do they stand on?” —Tarell Alvin McCraney


The next acting thesis production, In the Red and Brown Water, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Melissa Crespo, premieres December 5th at The Performance Space in the Lenfest Center for the Arts.


In the Red and Brown Water is the first piece in McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays. The trilogy continues with The Brothers Size, and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. McCraney wrote The Brother/Sister Plays while studying at the Yale School of Drama, where he is the current chair of the playwriting program. McCraney is most well-known for co-writing the Academy Award Winning film Moonlight.


In the Red and Brown Water tells the story of Oya a talented track runner who sacrifices a full scholarship to a state university in order to stay home and tend to her dying mother. She goes from one failing relationship to another, and when she learns, she is unable to conceive, she pushes the man she loves away. Without any prospects for a career or a family Oya loses her mind and descends into madness. We talked with acting student Dawn Elizabeth Clements ’19 about the upcoming production, who plays three roles Mama Moja, The Woman That Reminds You, and Nia.



Tell us about these three different roles


Mama Moja is the mother of Oya, who the story is based around. She's a free spirit, but she’s known as the protector and pretty much has an Orisha, a deity of some kind. She’s like the mother of the universe, of the water, and the shells, and everything, and so she’s the older prominent figure. Nia is a fun character. She’s young and flirty, like nineteen/twenty. There’s something between her and Shun doing their own thing in the play. Then The Woman Who Reminds You is a old wise Creole woman who’s a hoodoo/voodoo lady, a bruja, and she gives facts, listens; she's very straightforward.



What have you enjoyed about playing such different roles?


They challenge me in different ways. Nia is my age, so I get to actually have fun on stage, and play, and dance. This piece deals with a lot of movement and poetry so it’s very fun in that way. With Mama and The Woman Who Reminds You I get to play with age and what it means to be older and wiser. A lot of people tell me that I’m from before my time and that I have an old spirit so it means a lot to me to get to inhabit these different characters, not every role is the same. Mama Moja reminds me of my mom, even though my mom is younger. A lot of the things she says—Mama Moja is very fiesty—are very like ‘you ain’t going nowhere, you can’t do this Oya, who’s that?’ and my mom has done that to me my whole life. Mama Moja is not afraid to embarrass you. She’s not afraid to let you have it. The Woman Who Reminds You actually reminds me of my grandmother, an old spirit. She gives medicine that she gets from a tree that she concocts, that reminds me of that. Culturally just having me play these three strong women who are very in tune with who they are sexually, as females and forces in the community is also really cool.

How have you prepared?


I’ve been reading up on Tarell’s life. His background is everywhere within the play, especially with the women, but also the men. I think they reflect him in different ways. To prepare, I was looking up information about the playwright, reading the script a thousand times, and just trying to see how I could put myself in the role and what me and the characters could have in common. If you don’t have anything in common with the characters how can you really play them? It could be something as small as they smile a lot and I do too, simple things. I’m so happy it’s set in Louisiana because I went to school there. I’m used to the Bayou, the food, the flavor, the smells, the people. My best friend is from New Orleans, so I also kind of have a sense of it. And you know, listening to music and finding different innuendos that lead me towards what the characters are really trying to say. Trying to figure out the message. Although we read this play last semester we didn’t find out about our roles until a month into the process so being able to come back and see what this is really about and what I’m trying to say for three different people is cool. They all have a different message in their own way.



Why do you believe this piece was selected?


It's a piece for our generation, but it's also a great fit for the actors. Working with my classmates, I’ve seen them stretch themselves in different ways. The faculty knows our strengths and they know our weaknesses as well. So to see us stretch ourselves, especially in a complex piece such as this, means they believe that we can bring what Tarell is saying to life and they want to see us do it. Almost like a test, but we are passing it with flying colors because we have each other. It all comes down to the accountability for each other and we've been with each other for so long that we've learned to rely on each other seamlessly. Tarell is like William Shakespeare and plays like A Midsummer Nights Dream are not easy plays to do. 


Training hasn’t been a walk in the park, but it’s been amazing to my self-awareness and my confidence. I have become a fighter. A fighter in the sense of what roles I want to play, how I see myself, how I picture myself in certain roles. When it was announced that I got these three roles I was like, 'oh my god how am I about to do this.' But then after rereading the play and actually understanding, I was like, 'I can do this.' This is what it’s all about. Yes, you are supposed to be nervous a little bit but once you delve into it and you do the homework, you realize that’s what all the training was about. 



What have you found most enjoyable about creating this particular production?


In the Red and Brown Water deals with people of color, and I think it’s really cool that we picked this play because our class is so diverse. It also deals with community and being able to act in a play with my friends who hold each other accountable is always fun, we get to see just where our training has gone. Now it’s game time, it’s our thesis so we get to actually use all that we have learned together—that’s really beautiful. You can see the growth.


I’m excited for the audience to come and see the play—it’s a play for all ages. It has to deal with love and loss and defeat and colorism. It has to do with with self-awareness, with self-respect, triumph and bad timing of things. These are lessons we all need to learn. It’s so vital in this economy now with all that's going on. So I feel that it’s particularly poignant.



Where do you see yourself in ten years?


On Broadway, that’s my dream. I've always wanted to do The Color Purple or The Lion King and maybe even more of Tarell’s plays. I have always loved contemporary plays, but I love the classics as well. 



What advice would you give your first-year self?


Oooh girl, have more confidence. You didn’t work this hard for nothing. You got to where you are not only based on talent, which is a great thing, but also because you have guts and you have gusto. You are a good person and grateful and because you're a hard worker, what you do won’t go unnoticed, you’re prepared.



Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Melissa Crespo