By Manning Harris
Actor’s Express is currently holding forth with Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet,” running through April 26. It’s must-see viewing for theatre lovers, and if you saw Alliance Theatre’s award-winning production of McCraney’s “Choir Boy” last year, you won’t need too much convincing.
The 34-year-old Mr. McCraney has become the theatre world’s wunderkind, with acclaimed productions in New York, London, Los Angeles and elsewhere; in addition, he has won more prestigious awards than I can mention, including the lucrative 2013 MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” Award—much coveted, because it enables the recipient to pursue and practice his art.
“Marcus” is the last of the Brother/Sister trilogy; the first two are “The Brothers Size” and “In the Red and Brown Water.”
“Marcus” is set in San Pere, Louisiana, on the coast, and the African-American residents practice the culture and religion of the Yorubas of West Africa, as Express dramaturg Jane Barnette mentions in the program.
Part of the allure of Mr. McCraney’s work is his fascination by the coexistence of the flesh and the spirit. The central character is 16-year-old Marcus (Terry Guest) and his sexual and spiritual coming of age. It is largely assumed by his friends and relatives that he is “sweet,” their term for gay. Yet Marcus seems oddly unfazed by this assumption; he is currently dreaming of his late father and is having indistinct visions and revelations of him as well as other things and people.
These are puzzling to his best pals Osha (Falashay Pearson) and Shaunta (Ashley Tate), as well as his mother (Tiffany Denise Mitchenor). Osha is especially bothered because she has “had feelings” for Marcus for quite some time. These three actresses are outstanding.
But make no mistake: Marcus is not all mystical clairvoyance, for the handsome visiting Shua (Shon Middlebrooks), evidently on the down-low, has no trouble seducing Marcus. Meanwhile, Aunt Eleguah (a perfectly cast Bernardine Mitchell), elderly but with plenty of spunk, offers her own sly, wise observations (yes, she does sing a little; I know fans of Ms. Mitchell were wondering).
Playwright McCraney infuses everything with a haunting, lyrical cadence. There are spoken stage directions, and McCraney’s mixture of high lyricism and street slang, along with the West African iconography, make it all work beautifully. The sense of community is vital to the play; we seem never very far from music.
The easygoing, dreamlike ambience of the piece is a tribute to director Karen Robinson, scene designer Kat Conley, and of course, the actors.
Everyone I have mentioned is truly first rate. In addition, Enoch King, Avery Sharpe, and Olubajo Sonubi are very fine. By the way, have I mentioned that “Marcus” is often very funny?
Special mention must go to Terry Guest as Marcus: He captures all the vulnerability, toughness, and earnestness of youth in a magnetic way; add to this Mr. McCraney’s lyrical language, and you have an unforgettable portrayal.
Sometimes everything comes together in a play. It’s happened with “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet”; it’s as perfectly realized as anything I’ve ever seen at Actor’s Express.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: “Gay writer, black writer, political writer—the moment I jump into one of those buckets I’m stuck. It makes it harder to hear your own instincts, and there’s already so much noise.” This play is noise worth listening to—absolutely.
For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.