Though Tarell Alvin McCraney DRA ’07 will not assume his new position as chairman of the playwriting department of the Yale School of Drama until July, he has already made an impact on campus.
McCraney’s play, “In the Red and Brown Water,” ran from last Thursday to last Saturday at the Yale Cabaret, an organization entirely run and staffed by School of Drama students. Every production in the group’s 18-piece season is open to the public. The show was presented in collaboration with FOLKS, the black affinity group at the School of Drama whose mission is to foster black solidarity, a black legacy and “high-risk artistry” among the black artists at the School of Drama, according to the group’s online description.
Leland Fowler DRA ’17, who acted in and was assistant director of the show, brought the play to the other three co-leaders of FOLKS, who agreed unanimously to propose the show to the Yale Cabaret. Fowler said that McCraney has always been one of his favorite playwrights, even before his appointment to Yale.
“Their proposal was written with such passion, it just seemed like a no-brainer that we would do the show,” said Kevin Hourigan DRA ’17, one of the Yale Cabaret’s three artistic directors.
“In the Red and Brown Water” is also the second show in FOLKS’ annual four-production season, which is usually composed of staged readings centered around a single theme. This year, the theme is black joy. The first piece of the season was “Leftovers” by Josh Wilder DRA ’18 and later this month the organization will present “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” by Katori Hall. The final piece has yet to be announced.
The show incorporates songs and movement to tell the story of Oya, played by Moses Ingram DRA ’19, who grapples with both romantic and familial relationships after she abandons a full scholarship to a state university to stay with her dying mother, played by Kineta Kunutu DRA ’19. This play is the first in McCraney’s trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays.”
“A lot of people might look at this play and simply see it as a tragedy, but I don’t,” said director Tori Sampson DRA ’17 in an online video interview. “Things happen in life and you’ve got to find your way to peace. That drew me to [McCraney’s] work. I saw, in him, a playwright who was able to put his journey to peace in beautiful words.”
Similarly, co-producer and co-leader of FOLKS Lauren Banks DRA ’17 said the show celebrates black joy on multiple levels. The characters each pursue their own black joy, she said, describing it in part as a byproduct of freedom, spiritual growth and understanding. She added that the show also recognizes that joy is not an absence of pain.
Banks noted the unique composition of the cast and crew. All five of the first-year School of Drama actors who identify as black were a part of the production. In addition, 10 members of FOLKS worked on the show.
“In having the opportunity to work together for an extended period of time with all of the black and brown faces that were in the room, the prospect of having a cab show brought us black joy,” Banks said. “To have an opportunity and a space to be together in one room is very rare.”
McCraney’s appointment as playwriting chair was announced after the show was selected and began rehearsing, but both Hourigan and Fowler described his selection as “serendipitous.” The production is a homecoming for McCraney, who wrote the play while at Yale. Sampson previously told the News that she thought more people of color would apply to the playwriting department after seeing him as the chair.
McCraney was not able to attend the show because he was directing a staged reading of the play at his high school, the New World School of the Arts in Miama. However, he and Sampson did speak together about the show during the production process.
“It’s important that [McCraney], as the playwriting chair, is the person who is ushering in the voices that the American theater and thus the American public will hear,” Banks said.
McCraney’s semiautobiographical work “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” was rewritten by Director Barry Jenkins to create the script for the Golden Globe Award-winning film, “Moonlight.”