Although the elliptical universe of contemporary African-American theater continues to oscillate and revolve, for the moment, UCSB occupies its radiant center. By recruiting Shirley Jo Finney of the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles to direct In the Red and Brown Water, UCSB’s BFA acting program faculty has reunited the most promising African-American playwright of his generation, Tarell Alvin McCraney, with one of his most sympathetic interpreters. Add in a cast that includes some of the most talented students in UCSB’s program, and the result is a magical evening that points to what, in an age of intense competition from popular culture and digital media, the purpose of live theater may become.
When we first meet Oya (Joré Aaron-Broughton), she’s the teenage daughter of Mama Moja (Zurian Zarate) and a high school track star living in a derelict Florida housing project. Set designer Frederica Nascimento’s powerful triptych set piece gives Oya and the ensemble plenty of room to move through the communal musical dance segments that establish and amplify the characters’ archetypal connections to the gods and goddesses of the Yoruba. The orisha of the Yoruba are at the core of this play — the gods of a mostly Nigerian African tribe whose cosmology has proved particularly enduring and pervasive in the syncretism of beliefs that has come to characterize the spiritual lives of many African Americans. In her journey, Oya encounters multiple manifestations of these emissaries from the chthonic realm, and one of them, Shango (Rigoberto Sanchez), captures much more than her heart. Charles Grant, Roberto Tolentino, Tonea Lolin, Emily Newsome, Dillon Francis, and Andre Taylor excel as the supporting cast in one of the Santa Barbara theater season’s most exciting theatrical events.