Do believe the hype.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, a much vaunted theater talent, deserves his plaudits. The playwright's prodigious gifts are on display in the regional premiere of "In the Red and Brown Water," which opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater in an exquisite staging by Marion McClinton.
The first play in a trilogy, "Red and Brown Water" mixes myth with realism. It centers on Oya (Christiana Clark), a track star living in a Louisiana housing project, who is offered an athletic scholarship to college. Oya declines the offer to care for her sick mother, Mama Moja (the inestimable Sonja Parks). Her life goes on, dimmed but not over, as she seeks fulfillment in the arms of competing lovers -- army man Shango (Ansa Akyea) and businessman Ogun (James A. Williams).
McCraney's writing is witty, poetic and profound, marrying the supple poetics of Shakespeare, the mythic sweet spots of Federico Garcia Lorca and August Wilson and the choreographed soulfulness of Ntozake Shange with an urban lyricism. There's not much to the plot, but McCraney brings out the majesty of his poor characters, named after Yoruba deities.
Director McClinton approaches "Red and Brown Water" with minimal theatrical tricks. The creative team seems to have spent about $117 at garage sales for David Gallo's spare, terra-cotta-colored playing space, decorated with lawn chairs and given texture by Michael Wangen's lighting and C. Andrew Mayer's sound design, both of which swell and ebb with the rhythm of the piece.
"Red and Brown Water" is like a stripped-down "original practices" production of Shakespeare. Members of the acting ensemble sit at the side of the stage until it's their turn to join the action. Then they announce themselves, and step into their characters in a display of theatrical virtuosity.
The honor roll of performances begins with Clark as Oya, named for the fleet goddess of the wind. From her birth in a rhythmic, choreographed opening, to the writhing end, Clark inhabits Oya with honesty and warmth.
Akyea is marvelous as Shango, a muscular, cocksure figure given to teasing smiles and winks that cut like a knife through butter. Greta Oglesby delivers a saucy and sassy turn as Aunt Elegua, an older woman in full sexual bloom. Gavin Lawrence plays Elegba, named for the god of the crossroads. The trickster character begins as a begging boy and ends as a strutting man -- a transformation that Lawrence manages without seeming to stretch.
There are no weak links in the 10-person ensemble, which also includes Aimee K. Bryant and Celeste Jones as gossipy neighbors, John Catron as a college official and onetime Children's Theatre staple Nathan Barlow in a mature turn as the Egungun, named for ancestral spirits. This production, suffused with music, light and levity, announces the arrival of a brilliant new voice.