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Diarra Kilpatrick is a natural as a force of nature

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Diarra Kilpatrick

The actress has been called ‘superb’ in her role in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘In the Red and Brown Water,’ a play that exists in two conceptual dimensions.

by Reed Johnson

Before Diarra Kilpatrick was cast in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” at age 12, she already knew what she wanted to do with her life: anything but acting.

So when her hometown Detroit newspaper interviewed her about the production at a suburban theater, Kilpatrick told the reporter she wanted to be a lawyer or maybe the president of a public relations firm. But definitely not “a struggling actor,” she said.

Recounting that anecdote recently at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, where she’s playing the lead role in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s mytho-poetic drama “In the Red and Brown Water,” Kilpatrick laughed at the memory of her precocious pre-adolescent self.

Because by the time the article went to press, Kilpatrick knew what she absolutely had to do with her life: Be an actor.

“It was the quality of the actors that I got a chance to work with and see them up close,” she said, explaining her overnight career conversion during “The Piano Lesson.” “And the production, the material — it was August Wilson.”

Startling transformations are the stuff of theatrical magic, and they’re central to McCraney’s play, which opened at the Fountain in October and has been extended through Feb. 24. “In the Red and Brown Water” is the first of McCraney’s trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays,” produced off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2009.

Set during the “distant present” at a mythical housing project in a make-believe Louisiana bayou town, “In the Red and Brown Water” exists simultaneously in two conceptual dimensions.

There’s the 21st century world of Oya (Kilpatrick), a high school track star torn between her college ambitions and the need to care for her ailing Mama Mojo (Peggy A. Blow) and between her affection for the stammering, sweetly devoted Ogun (Dorian Christian Baucum) and the dangerous erotic heat she feels whenever Shango (Gilbert Glenn Brown) comes around her door.

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn brown in "In the Red and Brown Water"

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn Brown in “In the Red and Brown Water”

But in another dimension — parallel, yet inseparable — the play is a spiritual struggle that draws on the stories, cosmologies and archetypal gods of the Yoruba people of West Africa, whose legends were transported by slaves to the New World. Virtually all of the play’s 10 characters are named for traditional Yoruba orishas, or spirits: Elegba, the shape-shifting trickster; Shango, god of fire and lightning; Ogun, the deity of iron-working and war.

And Oya, goddess of the Niger River, wind, storms and, as Kilpatrick puts it, “revolutionary transformation.”

“It’s not like ‘Let’s redecorate the house,’ it’s like ‘Let’s tear this [stuff] down! Let’s knock the walls out!'” Kilpatrick explained. “So when Oya comes into your life, people fear her because it means your life is about to change.”

For Kilpatrick, the task was to simultaneously, plausibly portray Oya as a contemporary young woman as well as a force of nature. “This is a girl who listens to Nicki Minaj and Rihanna,” Kilpatrick said. “This is the texture of right now. But yeah, we also carry in our DNA these stories from hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”

In his review, Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised the Fountain’s production, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, as “sensational” and Kilpatrick as “superb.”

Growing up in Detroit, Kilpatrick was taken regularly by her mother to plays, art exhibitions and other cultural events. “Let me just say, if there was a play that was done in Detroit I probably saw it, particularly if it was a black play, and let’s say 95% of them are black plays in Detroit.”

Between ages 12 and 16, Kilpatrick took part in Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre, one of the country’s most accomplished youth theater programs. She also acted at her private college prep school, Detroit Country Day, before moving to the theater program at New York University, where she performed in plays like Suzan-Lori Parks’ “In the Blood” and Stephen Adly Guirgis,’ “Our Lady of 121st Street.”

“I was one of the only black girls who had made it that far who could cuss and make it sound real,” Kilpatrick said, laughing. NYU instructors strongly encouraged her to lose the vestigial Southern accent she’d picked up from her South Carolina-migrant forebears.

Given the realities of casting for African American actors, Kilpatrick said, it’s important to be able to switch accents and speech styles depending on the role. “You don’t want the private school to eat up all the richness of … your flavor. Because no matter what that flavor is, that’s going to be your calling card at the end of the day.”

Kilpatrick came to Los Angeles in 2007. She has appeared in the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s version of “Three Sisters,” set in Trinidad, and a half-black, half-Mexican transgender male in the Bootleg Theater’s production of Gary Lennon’s “The Interlopers” last year, among other roles.

But getting to play a role like Oya “is a blessing,” especially with this cast and “Shirley Jo at the helm,” she said.

“There aren’t parts like this for black women very often. It’s like Hamlet, it’s like King Lear, it’s Medea. It’s an opportunity to really go in there.”

In the Red and Brown Water  Extended to Feb 24  (323) 663-1525 More

Fountain Spotlight: Actress Diarra Kilpatrick On the Run in ‘In the Red and Brown Water’

Diarra Kilpatrick

Tell us about yourself. Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Detroit, MI.  My mom was always really dedicated to nurturing the artist in me as I was growing up.   She put me in every arts or literature program she could find and I thrived in them, so there was no way I was gonna grow up and become an accountant.   And thank God for that.  And my dad has the best sense of humor of anyone in the whole world. So if my mom gave me the gift of art, my dad gave me the gift of laughter.

How would you describe Oya, the character you play in In the Red and Brown Water?

“The Interlopers” at Bootleg Theater.

At this point in the process its a little hard to delineate where she ends and I begin honestly.  She’s a track star, so she’s alot faster than I am, that’s for sure.  My track and cross country coach from high school would probably chuckle if she saw this play because aside from the horizontally challenged members of the team, I was the worst one.  And I had the longest legs.  But  I went to this painfully conservative college prep school  and the rule was everyone had to  play a sport.  And if you were on scholarship you had to play TWO sports.  I thought that was completely racist because nearly all the scholarship kids were black.  So I think the angry little militant in me didn’t want to excel in sports cause as a black girl on scholarship was expected to.  I was like whatever, somebody point me towards the stage please.   But I regret it now.  I’ve grown up and found that I actually do like to run.  I probably could have been better if I had applied myself.  So I’m getting a chance to feel what that might have been like through Oya.

What themes in the play resonate for you?

The play for me is about Oya’s growth.  She has a hell of a time getting over the hump, from one version of herself to the next.   She’s special and she knows she’s special so there’s quite a bit of frustration that comes in when she has such a difficult time asserting herself in the world.

The language of the play

Yes the language of the piece is poetic. Black folks speak in poems to me anyway.  McCraney definitely highlights the lyricism in the black vernacular.  It informs me as an actress. I know exactly who these people are by the way they speak.  There’s no vagueness in there.  I know who they are.

How does mythology weave its way through the story?

My favorite thing about the piece is the presence of the mythology throughout.  These characters are black and poor and living in the projects.  Seems like the makings of a sad sack 90s movie that we’ve all seen before.  But by reminding us that at the very center, at the core of these characters,  is the spirit of a god or goddess, it somehow more fully reveals their humanity.  The playwright is showing these characters so much respect in that way.  It somehow manages to both elevate the piece and pull us closer to it.

Diarra Kilpatrick (Oya) and Gilbert Glenn Brown (Shango) from ‘In the Red and Brown Water’.

This is your first project at the Fountain. Are you having a good time?

I’m really enjoying working with Shirley Jo and the whole cast.  There’s a closeness that happened pretty organically.  I’m excited to get to rehearsal everyday.  This is the only ensemble I’ve been in  where people balk about taking a day off.  Everyone is very excited by the work.  And everyone is bringing so much of themselves to their performances.

In the Red and Brown Water  Oct 20 – Dec 16 (323) 663-1525  More