Like so many plays I've reviewed at the Hattiloo Theatre in recent years, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet shows incredible potential. A fine group of actors have come together for the last chapter of Tarrell Alvin McCraney's groundbreaking Brother/Sister trilogy, and with the help of director Dennis Darling, they share many fine moments. Unfortunately, all of those moments happen in blue-gelled darkness, obscuring faces, and hiding the twinkle and the terror in the actors' eyes. There's no front light to speak of, and very little texture. 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, he's trying to learn 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. Even more so for those who've gone the extra mile to learn about the thunder gods and gender-bending trickster deities McCraney alludes to throughout.
Cameron Yates is so vulnerable as Marcus — able to stop hearts with 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, obviously, 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 sunflower it's supposed to be, this production just kept audiences in the dark.