Before reviewing the Hattiloo's fun but flawed production of Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, I'd like to say just a few words about a special event that happened this past weekend on the Rhodes College campus. Students and community actors who performed in each of the McCoy Theatre's 35 seasons returned to Memphis to honor retiring theater professor Julia "Cookie" Ewing. The surprise party/cabaret packed the theater and included a live performance by an ensemble comprised of 43 alumni. Ewing's the kind of committed, challenging educator who inspires good students to be better students — and better people while they're at it. She was my faculty advisor. She's never stopped being my teacher. The abundant love and legacy on display this weekend evidenced Ewing's virtuoso performance as a mentor to generations. Standing O.
Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet shows incredible potential, but is undermined, ultimately, by an inattention to technical detail. A fine group of actors have come together to present the last chapter of Tarell Alvin McCraney's deceptively challenging "Brother/Sister" trilogy, and with the help of director Dennis Darling, these actors share many fine moments together. Unfortunately, on the night I attended, all those moments happened in near darkness, obscuring faces and hiding the twinkle and the terror in the actors' eyes. There was no front lighting to speak of and very little texture in either the lighting or scenic design. It's a superficial problem, but one that makes it difficult for me to wholeheartedly recommend a piece of theater I'd normally want to stand up and cheer about.
McCraney's a certifiable wunderkind who writes stylized family dramas overlaid with ritual. His sense of community calls to mind the August Wilson canon, but, formally speaking, the two writers couldn't be more dissimilar. McCraney's scripts borrow from African mythology, with dialogue so musical his characters sometimes have no choice but to burst into full-throated song. In many regards, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet is the most conventional play in a set that includes In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size. But it's hardly conventional. Dream sequences weave in and out of an already dreamy narrative while ghosts and confused lovers follow one another through a swampy Louisiana landscape. In some regards, it's a lot like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but with all of the old fairytale's original mystery and danger restored.
Marcus tells the story of a young man's sexual awakening and an accompanying compulsion to learn more about his father. Marcus is "sweet" — a euphemism for effeminate. Maybe he's gay. Maybe it's more complicated than that. At any rate, the curious young man is trying to learn the secret codes that exist in a tightly knit African-American community where homosexuality is kept on the DL. He wants to make connections, not only with new friends and lovers, but with history and also to some much bigger ideas. You don't need to be familiar with the other "Brother/Sister" plays to follow the action, but the show will be richer for those who are. It will be richer still for those who go the extra mile to learn about all the African thunder gods and gender-bending trickster deities McCraney alludes to throughout.
Cameron Yates is so vulnerable as Marcus — able to stop hearts with his quiet reticence and warm them again with shy, schoolgirl laughter. He's strongly supported by Mary Ann Washington (Oba), Hannaan Aisha Ester (Shaunta Lyun), Derrick Johnson (Shua/Oshoosi Size), and an able ensemble cast that is collectively responsible for some of the season's most satisfyingly human interactions. What's surprising, though, given director Darling's background as a musician and conductor, is how all of these interactions occur in the context of a production wanting for shape and dynamics.
I get that much of Marcus' action occurs at night. The challenge is to create the illusion of evening and shadow while still framing the characters and punctuating the action with light. But instead of blossoming into the bright sunflower it's supposed to be, this production just kept audiences in the dark.