Ever wanted to see a god? Well, now’s your chance. In the last few weeks of October, the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts is putting on In the Red and Brown Water, a play where human struggles mirror godly counterparts and a young woman fights to find her place.
In this production by Tarell Alvin McCraney, creator of Moonlight, each character’s name corresponds with an Orisha, a deity from the southwestern Nigerian Yoruba religion. While still encompassing the human shortcomings of their characters, each character is able to embody the personalities of their respective gods.
Oya’s Orisha is known as the “gift-giver,” although this trait is sometimes not in her best interest. Oya, played by Communication senior Lily Santiago, was a star athlete in high school and gave up a scholarship to college in order to stay home and take care of her sick mother. Because she gave this gift to her mother, Oya spends the rest of the play trying to find her place. She struggles in relation to her love interests, motherhood, and discovering what makes her unique.
“She has to find a new thing that she is passionate about, that sustains her,” Santiago said.
Ogun, played by Communication senior Robert Cunningham, represents the Orisha of the earth, making him a very grounded character. As a love interest to the main character, Oya, Ogun must embody this attribute to win her over.
One major theme in the play is “women trying to have their own agency,” Cunningham said. “These people are trying to show [Oya] different ways that she can live her life, and she has a difficult time with trying to just do it on her own.”
Oya has other characters throughout the play – especially her love interests, Shango and Ogun – trying to tell her how to live her life, but she must ultimately find her own way as a young Black woman. And while the storyline doesn’t revolve around Oya’s or any other character's race, the theme of Blackness is central to the production.
“It’s a cast of majority people of color… but the story isn’t necessarily about that," Santiago said. "It shows incredible Black people onstage, but it’s still a universally relatable story."
In the past few years, Stick Fly and Black Lives Black Words from 2017 have been the only Wirtz productions to showcase a majority Black cast.
“It’s so rare to see a cast of color on the mainstage at Northwestern," Santiago said. "And these characters are so full and so powerful, and they’re so layered because Tarell based the characters off these West African gods."
“In the show, we’re all on stage all the time, except for a few characters if they have costume changes,” Cunningham said.
Even when characters aren’t in the main action themselves, the actors are always on the periphery in their “god spaces." McCraney uses the position and emotions of actors in the periphery to further develop the god side of the characters and even occasionally break the fourth wall.
A unique aspect of the production is that each performer speaks their stage directions aloud. This tactic helps to draw the audience into the world these powerful gods inhabit.
When you need a break from the world, come see a production that is according to Santiago, “full of love and hope and laughter and community.”
The production is part of Black Arts International, a Northwestern conference which runs from Oct. 9-14. In the Red and Brown Water runs from Oct. 12-29 at the Josephine Louis Theater. Student tickets are $6 online.