Department of Theatre and Dance puts on play “In the Red and Brown Water”

AddThis

Lit Christian Henley stars as “Oya” in the the Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of “In the Red and Brown Water.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lawrence Peart

“In the Red and Brown Water” unmasks issues of inequality suffered by minorities in the United States. And though the play seems to be set in a distant time and place, the story mirrors the poverty, racism and strife afflicting the world today. 

From Oct. 5-16, the Department of Theatre and Dance will perform the play “In the Red and Brown Water.” The show, based in Louisiana, features a predominantly African-American cast and stars acting senior Christian Henley as Oya, a young track star who must cope with her mother’s death and the end of her track career. Theatre and African studies senior Oktavea Williams, plays Oya’s foil, Nia.

“This show is our protest,” Williams said. “It’s our gift for the 4 percent of black students who may be the only black kids in class, who don’t have a chance to see themselves in the media or on campus. This is our gift to those who are being displaced and pushed out of their homes right now. The biggest goal we could ever achieve is making sure that folks are able to see themselves in the work that we put out.”

The racism that exists in the play is subtle. Overtly racist comments are absent from the performance, but white men hold the only two positions of power. One controls the only store mentioned in the play. The other holds the key to Oya’s future in running track. 

“That’s the only commentary you get on that subject,” Henley said. “It’s just, ‘Oh these people have this,’ and you don’t think anything about it. But it’s there because in the context of today, that’s relevant. That’s why the show is based in the ‘distant present’ because it doesn’t have to be anything related to this exact moment, but it is.”

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s writing in the play reflects authentic Louisiana culture. All of the characters narrate their actions aloud, use a Louisiana dialect and speak in a poetic rhyme similar to Shakespearean language. Co-director Charles O. Anderson said the show also fused language, gestures and movement to add to the performance.

“I can’t look at or hear ‘In the Red and Brown Water’ as just a play,” Anderson said. “I look at it as a ritual, an experience and an illuminating journey.”

Williams said she auditioned for the play because she wanted to show the audience what life is really like for minorities.

“This is the type of work that I want to continue doing,” Williams said. “This is the type of work that feeds my soul: art that has purpose, means something and is reflective of real things that are happening in society.”

In addition to highlighting racial inequality, the show also demonstrates how life in the projects tears at the sanity of its residents. Oya forgoes her chance to attend college to stay with her ill mother, and eventually faces infertility as she tries to start a family.

But at the same time, through it all, her neighbors support her fight through misery instead of letting it absorb her. Henley said that people will be able to feel the sense of community that comes through a group of people experiencing the same suffering. 

“You feel for Oya because you see that’s she’s trying to live, but life is just throwing its little sprinkles on her,” Henley said. “I think the hard part is finding where she is happy, finding where her life isn’t just about all the sad things. Because it’s not. Those things inform the decisions that she makes, but they don’t inform that she’s still herself as this girl who loves to run.”

This story has been updated since its initial publication. An earlier version misattributed one of Anderson's quotes.