Interview with “In the Red and Brown Water” Directors Charles O. Anderson and Robert Ramirez

Directors Charles O. Anderson and Robert Ramirez bring Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water  to the stage this October. The story of a young runner with boundless possibilities, Oya is forced to choose between her ailing mother and her own dreams. This intoxicating movement-infused theatre work charts a young girl’s thrust into womanhood and her subsequent fall into the murky waters of life.

What is it about this play that resonates with you as directors?

Ramirez: The play resonates for me on many levels, probably one of the deepest being in this play the characters speak their actions. To me, that’s really at the root of making theatre. It’s the root of acting; the creation of oneself by opening their mouth and speaking. Literally speaking themselves into existence.

I first saw this cycle of plays (this play is part of a trilogy of plays) in Chicago several years ago at Steppenwolf Theatre and I have actually been thinking about these plays ever since I saw them. So this is wonderful and fulfilling opportunity to be able to go deeper into them beyond my viewing and my having read them many times over.

Anderson: I am particularly taken with the fact that it is an American play that is designed Afro-centrically. And what I mean by that is it is not African in its content or narrative, however the Africanist presence is so central to the actually quite universal narrative around a young woman who’s experiencing very human emotions and tragedies in her life. However the evocation of Yoruba culture as well as certain stylistic sensibilities and just the writing of the play really appeal to me.

How does this work (and McCraney’s work in general) relate to audiences? What do you feel is the social impact of this play?

Anderson: I feel as if this play at The University of Texas at Austin in Austin, Texas in 2016 has profound resonances with our current sociopolitical climate in numerous ways. I particularly think the fact that we are producing a play here that has a cast that is predominately of color is a rather significant moment for us. And the fact that it’s being directed by people of color as well brings a new energy to the department in exciting ways I think we’ve all been looking forward to.

Ramirez: I think also, at this time, it’s important for me, for us as a department also to celebrate black bodies in our space and to put the kind of care and attention and resources behind the production that really makes a statement about our commitment to writers of color, to performers of color, to women…so in many, many different ways the play and our production of the play is really significant to what is happening here in America right now.

Why do you feel it’s important for audiences to experience this piece?

Ramirez: I think it’s important for our audiences to experience this play because I see Tarell Alvin McCraney as one of the most important theatre-writers in the last 15 years. I think that this work is part of what some people are identifying as “the new canon.” As a body of work that will endure for a long period of time that represents the brilliant writing but contemporary ideas and spoken in a mode that’s relatable to the age range that dominates our university.

Anderson: I think I’m approaching it from the perspective that it’s exciting to see theatre and dance come together in very different ways than say, what we would traditionally see in a musical theatre production. Particularly, again, thinking about the Afro-centric component of it to see music and dance come together around notions of traditional Africanist symbology and ritual. I think it is going to be an eye-opening experience for a number of audience members, not in the sense that it’s so different but in the sense of how familiar it actually is.

What is the significance of the blend of text, movement and ritual in this work? How do you think that serves the meaning of the play?

Ramirez: I think the blend of text, movement and ritual, again, when I first experienced this play reminded me so much of the Greek tragedies. So again we have a play that is written, while incredibly poetic in structure and soaring in kind of language and ideas is also very compact and very colloquially contemporary at times. And yet, manages to evoke a lot of the same feelings that we trace back to the very beginnings of the theatrical experience. This is a ritual that is performed in a space that’s meant to provide an experience of catharsis for the audience, that’s meant to resonate on a spiritual level outside of the playing space and at the same time is a piece of spectacle, is a piece of moving art.

I think what we’re trying to accomplish is this idea that the doing is the play, the physical moving, the speaking, the acting, the dancing all of that is the language, not just the words that were written on the page.

Anderson: Here, here. I think the only thing I could add is, for me, is it’s exciting to see the African American experience in a contemporary context, standing on the shoulders of African storytelling techniques. So the concepts of Nomo which is “the power of the word;” and Àse, “the power to make things happen” they are so deeply embedded both in how it’s written and how we’re actually staging it that yeah, that’s just exciting. And I’m excited to be with him [Ramirez] doing it.

Ramirez: Yeah, because in the beginning there was “the word.” That is something that I think across almost every culture we share this idea that in the beginning there was “the word,” and the word created begins and a life and led to civilization and I think that this play really celebrates that.

And I think Charles is a genius.

Anderson: Likewise, sir. [Laughs]

Tell me about the play. What is In the Red and Brown Water about?

Ramirez: The play focuses on a young woman, Oya, who is coming of age. She is on the brink of possibly going to college and she has to make some really difficult decisions about whether she will leave this world that she lives in now or stay to take care of family and to be close to home. And then about the costs of those decisions and the path that it leads her down. I think the play is about the kind of trap that poverty can create for people of color and for women and about how often that there seems to be no choice but the choice that’s made is really quite huge.

Anderson: Rather than speaking through what we think of as Greek or Western cosmologies, McCraney has drawn upon, very generously, on the Yoruba mythos to create what are actually very traditional stories among the Orisha. He’s placed them within this contemporary context in Louisiana, which I don’t think is a mistake on his part because Louisiana is one of the few states in the United States that has a true and strong connection still to some of the indigenous Africanist cultures that are so prevalent in the United States.

In the Red and Brown Water 
By Tarell Alvin McCraney

October 5-16, 2016
Oscar G. Brockett Theatre