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”
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
Theater should remind us of our own lives. Remember the story that we see is how we can transform, change, and evolve. ~Shirley Jo Finney
Shirley Jo Finney
Promoting In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain Theatre, the riveting play written by award-winning African American playwright, Tarell Alvin Mc Craney would be simple enough. Well known for his acclaimed trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, the first play of this set In the Red and Brown Water has already been well received in each of it’s venues since the first premiere. Further, Tarell’s talents are highly sought as he is considered by many theatrical leaders as the best young writer around.
However, once combining the desired works of this proven playwright with the style and perspective of director, the eloquent, Shirley Jo Finney, anticipation and excitement of experiencing this enticing play reaches boiling point!
Less than two weeks before the Los Angeles premiere of In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain Theatre, in an exclusive interview I had the unique opportunity to experience first hand the reasons Shirley Jo is an award winning actress and director. Within less than an hour, I was virtually moved through the history of theater, Africans in America, church, and the modern day classroom. Her passion and expertise is palpable in conversation as she effortlessly creates visions of slaves on the plantation, Sunday afternoons singing and dancing for their masters. As the folk watched from their porches, thoroughly absorbed and entertained, they were often oblivious to the sarcasm that shadowed the mimicry of their chattel’s exceptional performances.
Fast forwarding some years, I virtually viewed the descendants of the old masters in black face erroneously mimicking Black people. I traveled under her spell to the Black community of theater where portrayals in the history of African American churches were common. Shirley Jo instantly broke into character invoking the “Call and Response” style of the good reverend after which she explained:
That’s the call and response. It’s what I like to call “edu-ma-tainment,” creating ritual, engaging in the stories of, like the bible. Living, laughing, and dying – as a ritual.
I asked Shirley Jo some specific questions about Tarell’s style of writing, here are some of those questions and answers:
Me: Is Tarell’s style like Tyler Perry’s?
Shirley Jo: No. Two different styles. If you want to co-explore, go see the works of August Wilson and Suzy-Lori Parks that show African Americans incarcerated by the institution of slavery. He (Tarell) incorporates those elements which makes the difference.
Me: Okay. Spike Lee said some negative things to say about Tyler Perry’s portrayal of African Americans. What is your opinion on this subject?
Shirley Jo: The beauty is the diversity! Everybody has a market and a point of view. Tyler makes what’s called “cottage films.” No judgement. I love that about where we are. We are no longer stuck in Blaxploitation, allow everyone their voice regardless if you like that person or not, we have a choice.
Me: Shirley Jo, what do you believe the theater’s job is?
Shirley Jo: Theater should remind us of our own lives. Remember the story that we see is how we can transform, change, and evolve.
Tarell Alvin McCraney does just that in In the Red and Brown Water. The main character Oya, struggles to maintain her dreams. She runs track and sees it as her way of breaking free from the impoverished community she grew up in. After losing her mother she encounters a number of obstacles and sacrifices her dream. Oya means goddess of wind. Red represents our life blood, life force or passion. Brown represents the environment as the plays setting is in Louisiana. Water represents cleansing or new beginnings.
Entering adulthood just after the Civil Rights Movement shifted in to high gear, Shirley Jo had already experienced a lifetime of firsts. First integrated neighborhood, first Black student in the school, and she was the first African American student in the MFA program for Theater at UCLA. Shirley Jo was in the midst of an amazing acting career when she first delved into the role of director. Best known for her portrayal of Wilma in “Wilma” the true story of one of America’s greatest Olympic athletes; her resume includes many well known works including several episodes of “Moesha” and “Remember Me?”
Just prior to preparation for In the Red and Brown Water, Shirley Jo returned from Africa where she’d just completed “Winne The Opera,” the operatic story of Winnie Mandela.
Video: Winnie – The Opera
In The Red and Brown Water Oct 20 – Dec 16 (323) 663-1525More
I’m coming late to the controversy over the resoundingly white male-written and -directed season announced for the Guthrie next year, in part because I’m tired of hearing myself rehearse the same old indignities at these repetitive insults to women’s artistry and integrity. Reading the many smart excoriations of Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling’s defensive protestations about why it’s okay to ignore gender and race in season selection, I’m simply reminded, yet again, of the supreme arrogance of white men like him (not all white men) who are accustomed to seeing and remaking the world in their own image.
I was deeply moved by Polly Carl’s essay, “A Boy in a Man’s Theatre,” on HowlRound (4/28/12), in which she eloquently admitted, “I am compelled to talk some truth about finding yourself ‘other’ in a white man’s world—about the importance of insisting on being seen.” Describing her reaction to watching a rehearsal of Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Carl realized that although the new musical isn’t her “exact” story, “it was my story.” The power of recognition—of seeing a life that looks like yours on stage—was overwhelming for Carl. And if I’ve done my math right, Carl is in her 40s. She’s been feeling invisible for a long time.
I wish someone like Joe Dowling could imagine what it feels like to go to the theatre or the movies, or turn on the television, and never see yourself represented. If you’re white and male, and especially if you’re straight, it must go without mention that something that at least looks like your life will be part and parcel of the story told of an evening. I can’t imagine the privilege of just assuming that the world will look like you, and that if it doesn’t, it’s because affirmative action or some other “self-serving” quota system (as Dowling accused protests over the Guthrie season of being) has allowed the riff-raff of gender, race, ethnic, and sexual difference to sneak in.
Even the conservative Wall Street Journal published an article called “Lots of Guys, Too Few Dolls,”shortly after this year’s Tony Award nominations were announced, in which the reporter—Pia Catton (a woman)—noted that “one is reminded of a sad truth: While Tony’s are equally bestowed on male and female stars of the stage, there’s a colossal gender gap in the honors given to the men and women who create the shows.” Catton went on to report that the percentages of plays written and directed by women on Broadway has barely changed over the decades, quoting experts like Susan Jonas, who co-wrote the 2002 New York State Council on the Arts report on the status of women in theatre, and mentioning the recently established Lilly Awards (named after Lillian Hellman), which turn their backs on the Tonys’ snubs by giving their own honors to women working in theatre.
On a much brighter side of this ubiquitous story, this week I received by snail mail the new season announcement from Arena Stage, in D.C., and was reminded that the gender and racial diversity in play and director selection that Dowling considers impossible or beneath him (or both) happens as a matter of course at other U.S. theatres. In a market bigger than Minneapolis, with subscribers equally as august and long-standing, Arena artistic director Molly Smith regularly programs seasons that include a majority of productions written or directed by women and people of color (and both).
For 2012-2013, Arena’s eight-play season includes three plays by women, two of which are by women of color: Pullman Porter Blues, by Cheryl L. West, and The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall, as well as a revival of Metamorphoses, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. West’s play will be directed by Lisa Peterson, who, along with colleagues Zimmerman, Jackie Maxwell, Kyle Donnelly, and Smith herself, comprise a roster of five women directors out of the eight productions. Of the remaining three shows directed by men, two are directed by African Americans (and Tazewell Thompson also wrote the play he’ll direct). The one show written and directed by a white man is One Night with Janis Joplin, so its content counts as gender diversity, if part of the issue is whose stories are told and whose bodies are seen on stage.
Good for Molly Smith and her artistic staff and her board, who no doubt ratified her progressive vision. Smith is directing My Fair Lady at Arena next season, the Lerner and Loewe musical she mounted last summer at the Shaw Festival in Canada. That production was a terrific, high energy, multi-racial cast production that rivaled her 2010 reimagining of Oklahoma! in its rejuvenated vision of the classic American musical. Smith takes the American canon—part of Arena’s mandate—and refashions it to speak across identity communities, instead of sequestering it in presumptively white enclaves and preserving it for white people. That narrow vision—Dowling’s vision—doesn’t reflect or do justice to the complex race, gender, sexuality, ethnic, and class composition of contemporary America. Dowling’s vision is former presidential candidate Bob Dole’s bridge to the past; Smith’s is a glorious, hopeful representation of a reimagined future.
Playwrights Horizons in New York also deserves a place of pride in this counter-pantheon of progressive American theatres. For 2012-2013, long-time artistic director Tim Sanford (a white man) offers six productions, new plays all, of which four are written by women (one of whom is African American), and one is a musical adaptation of Far From Heaven (written by Richard Greenberg and directed by Michael Greif), Todd Hayne’s wrenching 2002 film about the wife of a closeted gay man navigating her nuclear family life in the 1950s. White women direct three of the six productions: Anne Kauffman directs Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit; Carolyn Cantor directs her frequent collaborator Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan; and Leigh Silverman directs Tanya Barfield’s The Call. Sam Gold, who’s proven his sensitivity as a director of women’s work, directs Annie Baker’s The Flick.
Playwrights’ season teaser brochure also includes a clever “key” to the genres and themes introduced by its six plays. The guide includes symbols that run alongside each play’s title, indicating whether it addresses “comic relief,” “gaiety” (of the LGBT variety), “parenthood,” “race relations,” “impossible love,” “job inequality,” “prophetic vision,” “skeletons in the closet,” “strange neighbors,” “suburban angst,” or “Mormonism.” Just reading this key made me laugh; what a witty reminder that any production has something idiosyncratic for everyone and that “universality” never means just one thing.
Molly Smith’s “Oklahoma”
Arena and Playwrights regularly stage plays written and directed by women and people of color, not to fill a token slot in each season, but because these productions showcase voices that have something to say across communities. They make visible populations of citizens alongside all the Joe Dowlings who are too blind to see how these so-called minorities/future majorities are remaking our collective world. Molly Smith’s Oklahoma! is the state we live in now, thank goodness.
Likewise, Emily Mann’s production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, now playing on Broadway with a cast of people of color, shows us something new about ourselves and the canon of American drama. Mann knew Williams, and insists he told her that given New Orleans’s Creole population, he could imagine the play with an African American cast. Mann researched the French Quarter of the period, and found ample justification for casting the Dubois family and Stanley as black, conflicted by the same class differences that propel Williams’s drama when it’s cast with white actors.
“Streetcar” directed by Emily Mann
But critics like Ben Brantley consider this “gimmick” casting, and scoff at Mann and the producers (who also mounted an African American production of Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) for fooling around with the American canon in ways they, like Dowling, find self-serving. These reviews sound reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s admonishment last summer that Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks had gone too far in their adaptation and revision of Porgy and Bess.
Underneath all these criticisms that purport to champion good American drama is a warning to women and people of color that they shouldn’t get too uppity, that they should steer clear of white men’s work and stay barefoot and happy—and invisible and silent—in the ghettos of their “special interest” theatres.
The same blatant discrimination was recently called out at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where of the 22 films nominated for the 2012 Palme D’Or prize, none were written or directed by women. The oversight caused a similar online uproar as the Dowling debacle among the film (and larger) arts community, through which petitions circulated for signatures to protest this blatant exclusion.
Have we gone back to the future? Is it the 1950s again? In a political moment in which Republicans and Tea Party-ers threaten to reverse every achievement for women’s reproductive rights garnered since Roe v. Wade; when the same politicians inflame xenophobic anti-immigration sentiments about our southern borders (and when similar anti-immigrant racism roils political waters in Cannes’ France); and when LGBT activists have to celebrate when Obama announces that he’s “evolved” into thinking same-sex marriage is okay after all (gee, thanks, Barack), maybe it’s no surprise that the festival director at Cannes, and Brantley at the Times, and Dowling at the Guthrie think they can discriminate against women and people of color with impunity.
Let’s not let them get away with it. Write to Molly Smith at Arena, and Tim Sanford at Playwrights and tell them how pleased you are with their 2012-2013 season announcements. Write to Dowling at the Guthrieand tell him how disappointed you are that he’s such a Neanderthal. Sign the petitions circulating protesting the exclusion of women from the prize at Cannes. And write letters to the Times protesting that white men like Brantley and Charles Isherwood foster a discourse about the arts in which decisions like Dowling’s season are okay and productions like Mann’s Streetcar are dismissed.
Don’t just go to the theatre—respond to it, write about it, protest it, reimagine it. It’s too important to keep allowing the barbarians to guard the gate.
The Broadway League’s recent demographic report found that 83% of tickets were bought by caucasian theatregoers. Loughlin writes: “I think it’s safe to make the following conclusion: Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners.”
This materializes at a time of seemingly unprecedented exposure for black female playwrights on Broadway.
This season, for apparently the first time, Broadway will host as many as four distinct works written or adapted by African American women. Already running is the Martin Luther King Jr. play The Mountaintop, by the young playwright Katori Hall, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Also running is Stick Fly, Lydia R. Diamond’s upper-middle-class family drama, featuring Dule Hill, Mekhi Phifer and Tracie Thoms. And the new edition of the Gershwins-DuBose Heyward opera Porgy and Bess, with a revised book by Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog /Underdog). And angling for a theater this spring is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by another Pulitzer recipient, Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”).
Some of the women who are being produced on Broadway this season say they are not completely sure how to characterize their rise to prominence — or even totally comfortable with their being looked upon as part of a breakthrough season.
Lydia R. Diamond
Lydia R. Diamond stops herself from the kind of pronouncement that implies a circle has been closed. Not enough work by enough people of color has regularly been produced for any kind of victory to be declared.
Says Diamond: “If Suzan-Lori and Katori and Lynn and I got together we might say, ‘It’s a little safer today, and oh, look how far we’ve come. But we still have a long way to go.’ I feel that it’s important we learn from this moment, but not be so comforted by it that it has corrected all the wrong.”
Nottage takes this observation a step further, arguing that black women remain marginalized in many other facets of the entertainment industry, and figure more centrally in writing for theater because the form has been more welcoming. “There are more of us writing at a high level than ever before,” she says. “But we have to find a medium in which we can do it. And it’s partly because we’re shut out of film and TV that we are writing for this medium.”
Broadway is also noticing the potency of African American ticket buyers, an economic force that for a long time had been undervalued.
“I think there’s a sense in the industry that there’s a black audience out there interested and engaged,” Nottage says.
In a perfect world this confluence of playwrights-of-color on Broadway would be the norm, not the exception. Playwrights rightly bristle at being sorted into categories and resist having their works considered from the perspective of the author’s racial or ethnic background. Good work should speak for itself.
Kenny Leon, the director of the recent smash revival of Fences, directed both The Mountaintop and Stick Fly. He notes, “I can’t remember the last time there were three women playwrights on Broadway during the same season, let alone three African-American women.”
Katori Hall’s ebullience over reaching Broadway is tempered by an awareness that this season is hardly a usual one. “I’m used to the Great White Way being the Great White Way,” she said, “so yes it feels really good. But I’m hesitant to celebrate because next season we may be back to white male writers only. Let’s be cautious.”
“I remember standing in line for The Color Purple with my in-laws and my mother,” in 2005, she said, “and seeing black audiences lined up around the block twice. That was sort of mind blowing for me. I thought, I don’t know why we don’t see more things like this here if there are this many people lining up to see them.”
“I’ve worked very hard with marketing people to include African-Americans,” she said. “I know that there’s a huge population interested in seeing themselves reflected onstage.” Yet, she added, “At the same time I don’t think my work speaks only to an African-American audience.”
Leon pointed to other black female writers who deserve to have their work seen on Broadway stages.
“Lynn Nottage is a top-of-the-line, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who should have her plays on Broadway,” Mr. Leon said. “Regina Taylor is writing some great work. Pearl Cleage is still writing good plays.”
Suzan Lori Parks
It is, of course, an uphill battle for any emerging playwright to get new work presented on Broadway. But while Ms. Hall cheerfully said, “The fact that me and Lydia and Suzan are coming to Broadway I have to see as something of a triumph,” she still has discouraging memories of regional theaters, where much new American work first gets seen.
“I’ve had frank conversations with theaters who say, ‘We love your play, but we’ve already done a play by another black person this year,’ or ‘I don’t think the kind of people you write about are the ones our audience wants to see,’ ” she said. “Up and coming young black female writers are still struggling to have their voices heard and have their plays produced. I may be on the mountain right now, but they are still in the trenches.”