Award-Winning Director Shirley Jo Finney Guides Los Angeles Premiere of ‘In The Red and Brown Water’

by Charlzetta Driver

Theater should remind us of our own lives. Remember the story that we see is how we can transform, change, and evolve. ~Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney

Promoting In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain Theatre, the riveting play written by award-winning African American playwright, Tarell Alvin Mc Craney would be simple enough. Well known for his acclaimed trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, the first play of this set In the Red and Brown Water has already been well received in each of it’s venues since the first premiere. Further, Tarell’s talents are highly sought as he is considered by many theatrical leaders as the best young writer around.

However, once combining the desired works of this proven playwright with the style and perspective of director, the eloquent, Shirley Jo Finney, anticipation and excitement of experiencing this enticing play reaches boiling point!

Less than two weeks before the Los Angeles premiere of In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain Theatre,  in an exclusive interview I had the unique opportunity to experience first hand the reasons Shirley Jo is an award winning actress and director. Within less than an hour, I was virtually moved through the history of theater, Africans in America, church, and the modern day classroom. Her passion and expertise is palpable in conversation as she effortlessly creates visions of slaves on the plantation, Sunday afternoons singing and dancing for their masters. As the folk watched from their porches, thoroughly absorbed and entertained, they were often oblivious to the sarcasm that shadowed the mimicry of their chattel’s exceptional performances.

Fast forwarding some years, I virtually viewed the descendants of the old masters in black face erroneously mimicking Black people. I traveled under her spell to the Black community of theater where portrayals in the history of African American churches were common. Shirley Jo instantly broke into character invoking the “Call and Response” style of the good reverend after which she explained:

That’s the call and response. It’s what I like to call “edu-ma-tainment,” creating ritual, engaging in the stories of, like the bible. Living, laughing, and dying – as a ritual.

Tarell McCraney

I asked Shirley Jo some specific questions about Tarell’s style of writing, here are some of those questions and answers:

Me: Is Tarell’s style like Tyler Perry’s?

Shirley Jo: No. Two different styles. If you want to co-explore, go see the works of August Wilson and Suzy-Lori Parks that show African Americans incarcerated by the institution of slavery. He (Tarell) incorporates those elements which makes the difference.

Me: Okay. Spike Lee said some negative things to say about Tyler Perry’s portrayal of African Americans. What is your opinion on this subject?

Shirley Jo: The beauty is the diversity! Everybody has a market and a point of view. Tyler makes what’s called “cottage films.” No judgement. I love that about where we are. We are no longer stuck in Blaxploitation, allow everyone their voice regardless if you like that person or not, we have a choice.

Me: Shirley Jo, what do you believe the theater’s job is?

Shirley Jo: Theater should remind us of our own lives. Remember the story that we see is how we can transform, change, and evolve.

Tarell Alvin McCraney does just that in In the Red and Brown Water. The main character Oya, struggles to maintain her dreams. She runs track and sees it as her way of breaking free from the impoverished community she grew up in. After losing her mother she encounters a number of obstacles and sacrifices her dream. Oya means goddess of wind. Red represents our life blood, life force or passion. Brown represents the environment as the plays setting is in Louisiana. Water represents cleansing or new beginnings.

Entering adulthood just after the Civil Rights Movement shifted in to high gear, Shirley Jo had already experienced a lifetime of firsts. First integrated neighborhood, first Black student in the school, and she was the first African American student in the MFA program for Theater at UCLA. Shirley Jo was in the midst of an amazing acting career when she first delved into the role of director. Best known for her portrayal of Wilma in “Wilma” the true story of one of America’s greatest Olympic athletes; her resume includes many well known works including several episodes of “Moesha” and “Remember Me?”

Just prior to preparation for In the Red and Brown Water, Shirley Jo returned from Africa where she’d just completed “Winne The Opera,” the operatic story of Winnie Mandela.

Video: Winnie – The Opera

In The Red and Brown Water  Oct 20 – Dec 16 (323) 663-1525  More 

Charlzetta Driver is a freelance writer for Examiner.com

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