Last May, director Shirley Jo Finney participated in LA STAGE Alliance’s interactive confab, LA STAGE TALKS, held at [Inside] the Ford, moderated by LASA CEO Terence McFarland. When asked to simulate an initial director/designer production meeting in the creative journey to mount a production, Finney exuded a decidedly surrealistic state of mind, affirming, “we are going to be looking at the inner journey, the shakras, which are going be our color palette for the costumes, lighting and sound.”
It is this same sense of anticipation of discovering the deeper layers of the scripted word that Finney brings to her staging of the LA premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water, opening Saturday at Fountain Theatre.
Set in the housing projects of fictional San Pere, Louisiana, In the Red and Brown Water entwines the realities of urban ghetto life with the rituals of ancient West African religions and centuries-old traditions of storytelling. It’s the first of McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, chronicling the coming of age of Oya, as she evolves from a young girl into womanhood.
Finney recalls, “I knew of this piece because several years ago I was participating in a writers’ retreat right after I had directed Stick Fly [in September 2007] at McCarter Theatre [in Princeton, NJ] . During that time they were reading Tarell’s play. I didn’t get to meet him at that time.” The play had already received a 2006 reading at the Public Theater in New York, and its premiere took place in 2008 at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. In 2009 the McCarter and the Public Theater produced the entire trilogy, which also includes The Brothers Size and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet.
Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, says Finney, “had been trying very hard to get [In the Red and Brown Water] for a long time. A couple of years ago he asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, oh yeah. It is a style of theater that I love. But then he asked if I was willing to do the whole trilogy of plays. I had to laugh. I told him, let’s do one play at a time and see how we do. I know some other theaters have done the whole trilogy in rep. Up in Oakland, there were three theaters that did each of the pieces. But I am happy the Fountain decided to start just with this one.”
The Finney/Fountain history of collaboration began with From the Mississippi Delta, which garnered Finney a 1997 Drama-logue Award. This was followed by the 2001 Garland Award-winning Central Avenue, scripted by Sachs; the 2005 Ovation-winning Yellowman; and The Ballad of Emmett Till, which earned Finney 2010 Ovation Award directing honors.
Finney readily admits she doesn’t deal well with time restraints when staging a work. “We started rehearsing on September 3. I do like to take my time and luxuriate with the actors. Before we even began rehearsals I had everyone involved in the production come to my home for dinner and we had a first reading. I cooked and the cast ate. When you break bread with someone, you are also breaking down barriers. Then we read the show after we ate. It was a very communal atmosphere and the piece called for it.
“A lot of times, we just rush into sitting down at the table read and begin analyzing the script. That seems too hurried to me. Since this play is all about the community, it was really important for me to establish that from the beginning, for them to feel each other going forward. It made our rehearsal time really quality time, luxuriating time. We rehearse six days a week, eight-hour days on Saturday and Sunday, four hours on Tuesday through Friday. There were a lot of ingredients to work out besides the acting. Even though it is a play, there is movement in here, singing in here.”
In the Red and Brown Water stars Dorian Christian Baucum, Peggy A. Blow, Glenn Gilbert Brown, Justin Chu Cary, Diarra Kilpatrick, Stephen Marshall, Simone Missick, Iona Morris, Theodore Perkins and Maya Lynne Robinson. Due to the complexity of the work, there are a slew of production designers and coaches, including Frederica Nascimento (set), José Lopez (lighting), Peter Bayne (sound) Naila Aladdin Sanders (costumes), Misty Carlisle props), Ameenah Kaplan (choreography), Brenda Lee Eager (vocal coach) and JB Blanc (dialect coach).
“This work is dense,” Finney affirms. “It is simple, poetic and lyrical in the writing, but the space in between the words is dense. It’s full and it’s rich. So, it has been a lot of investigative work that the cast and I have siphoned through and really have gleaned in terms of the world that Tarell has created. Using a contemporary myth, based on the cosmology of the old Yoruba religion of Africa, he has thrust this work in the projects, in a fictional area that is really New Orleans.
“I have never seen a production of this work and I’m glad. I am creating it anew in my mind, which I love to do. Basically, I have the freedom to take the written word and the poetry off the page and conceptualize.”
McCraney “truly borrows from the oral tradition of a storyteller,” she continues. “When a character is talking, he or she knows the audience is there. There is no illusion. You do break the fourth wall. The playwright adds the dimension of the actors being actors, acting. They are literating the story, actually talking to the audience. So, they state their narration and then they become the characters.
“So, the stage directions may say, Oya enters the room on the written page. So, Oya actually says that to the audience. And then she enters the room. So, the audience is always aware that the actor is acting, which I love. It is like Paul Sills’ Story Theatre and Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood. It is a great way to capture the audience. You don’t let them off the hook.”
The challenge for the actors during the rehearsal process, Finney says, is to actually keep the focus on the audience. “I had to keep reminding them to pick someone in the audience and lock eyes with that person. If you’re looking directly at a person, that person is invested now in your story. They can’t talk or think about what they are going to have to eat after they leave the theater.”
Finney laughs out loud when she’s asked where she’s from. “Why, do I sound like I am from another planet? Actually, I am a California girl, from the Central Valley, Merced. I loved growing up there. But I have been all over the world because my stepfather was in the military, a bombardier/navigator. Then he became an attorney and is now a retired judge. My mother was an educator. She was a counselor.
“I was exposed to the arts very early, mostly because my mother wanted to keep me busy. I was programmed to go to college and get a degree in something. I thought I was going to major in English/creative writing. My first year of college, a friend of mine told me they were going to do a play called In White America. It was a six-character play, and they needed a female black actor. I wasn’t an actor, but I felt this was some kind of door opening to me. I ended up playing multiple characters. I didn’t tell my mother right away, but I did change my major. Then I went to UCLA, still as an acting major, but I also started taking directing classes in the film and television department. That started my transition into directing.”
Finney felt transitioned enough to convert a photographer’s studio at 660 Heliotrope Drive (now Sacred Fools) into a theater in 1982. There, she produced and directed Impressions of a Loud Reader. She subsequently got the attention of Diane White and Bill Bushnell, who invited her to join the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre (LAAT), where she developed and directed Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting. Over the years, Finney has enjoyed an enviable career, most recently at the State Theater in Pretoria, South Africa, where she helmed a critically acclaimed production of the South African opera, Winnie, based on the life of political icon Winnie Mandela.
What are the prospects that LA might see the rest of McCraney’s trilogy soon? “Now if I was a betting person,” Finney says, “I would be willing to bet, if we have a successful production of In the Red and Brown Water, I am going to be hearing a lot about scripts two and three of The Brother/Sister Plays.”
In the Red and Brown Water, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie), LA 90029. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Through Dec. 16. Tickets: $30-34. www.FountainTheatre.com. 323-663-1525.
***All In the Red and Brown Water production photos by Ed Krieger