by Ellen Gillingham
The play, In the Red and Brown Water creates a conversation around issues pertaining to constructing womanhood with the theme of size. The final scene in the play, scene 8, comes from the Yoruba myth of Oba. According to African Folktales in the New World by William Russell Bascom, Oba was cooking for her husband, Shango. Oshun encouraged Oba to put one of her ears in the food to please Shango. When Oba showed Shango that she cut off her ear because she loved him so much, he got mad at her. Oba thinks cutting off her ear and giving it to Shango will keep him with her. Then Shango moved in with Oshun, which is what Oshun wanted (Bascom). In his play, Tarell Alvin McCraney draws from Yoruba spiritual beliefs as influences for his characters and plot. He uniquely combines the folktales with his own style and ideologies to present a construction of black womanhood.
In the play, In the Red and Brown Water, the character of Oya, a high school runner, represents the Yoruba goddess of the Niger River, wind, and storms. In act I, the audience sees that running is essential to Oya’s life. Oya sacrifices the opportunity to run for the state because of her mother’s illness. Family develops as a motivating force for Oya, as she later yearns to find love and give birth.
Act II Scene 8 constructs Oya’s black womanhood, when she cuts off her ear as a gift for Shango in “his new life and times!” (McCraney 122). This action shows that she would do anything to be with Shango. When she finds out that Shun is having his baby, after find out that she cannot have children, she wants to do something to keep him as hers. Other women in the play also teach us that womanhood is about having children. Shun says, “I’m having his baby so I’m his woman now!” (McCraney 122). Maternity and motherhood are shown as growths. The pregnant characters physically get bigger, so by contrasting Oya to them, McCraney symbolizes her reduction. Oya consumes herself with her infertility, not even letting other characters talk to her about their parenthood. She literally becomes smaller as she removes a piece of her body and falls to the floor. McCraney’s characterization of Oya symbolizes an understanding of womanhood in relation to political visibility and importance because without the ability to reproduce Oya is less useful to the community.
Oya’s missing ear shapes her as a character. It is a defining quality because she becomes extremely vulnerable without her ear. Ears hold your balance, so Oya loses her ability to run. She lessens her abilities and shortens her life. Other characters are getting bigger and carrying on their attributes with offspring, but Oya diminishes. As Guy-Sheftall and Cole argue in Gender Talk, “women are associated primarily with the domestic sphere. Their reproductive capacity is essentialized and becomes the primary aspect of their identity” (Guy-Sheftall and Cole 81). McCraney uses this scene to connect black womenhood’s emphasis on motherhood to family. He ties the two directly with Oya’s downfall. Oya, who has always put family first, becomes depressed and weak when she hears that she is infertile.
The final moment of the play reminds me of The Interrupters talk with Ameena Matthews. In the documentary Matthews and other characters talk about her maternal feelings. Capricia, a woman involved in violence in Chicago, is said to be in her situation because she had to grow up too quickly without family. Another character says Little Mikey starts to improve on his violence upon having a positive male role model (Matthews). The importance of family in relation to identity formation is evoked in both texts. Oya symbolically fades away without the ability to create children, while Capricia and Little Mikey struggle before having familiar community involvement.
During class, I made more connections between sizes. Size is important to consider as a common theme in McCraney’s work, especially in the following play The Brothers Size. In In the Red and Brown Water McCraney includes things that can be interpreted as big and other things as small. Before class, I made the connection that when characters would get pregnant their bodies would get bigger. In class, I realized that size also applies to how much a character talks symbolizes their power in relation to other characters. Some of the characters talked in bigger blocks. For example, the Man from the State’s lines are longer than Oya’s lines are. This relationship parallels the character’s individual power. The Man from the State can determine whether Oya goes to college or not. When you are reading plays, their meanings do not just come from what is being said, but also how things appear on the pages. The use of scale in the play’s visual structure is significant as a connection to womanhood’s relationship with political presence. The smaller things like not having the power to speak in long verses or inability to grow to have children symbolize a smaller political importance.
Overall, my ideas developed further after the larger group conversation. I learned how my analysis could apply to content beyond what I had originally proposed. In essence, McCraney’s play, In the Red and Brown Water consisted of a complex understanding of size and proportions. His technique in characterization, character relationships, and visual structure symbolizes an understanding of womanhood in relation to political visibility and importance.
Bascom, William Russell. African Folktales in the New World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Web.
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly and Johnnetta Betsch Cole. Gender Talk. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2003. Print.
McCraney, Tarell Alvin. “In the Red and Brown Water.” McCraney, Tarell Alvin. The Brother/Sister Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2010. Web.
The Interrupters. Dir. Steve James. Perf. Ameena Matthews. 2011. Event.