Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Mark Rucker
American Conservatory Theater
Nov. 3-Nov. 21, 2010
There is an unseen menace in “Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet” and it’s dark and wet and really scary. It permeates the dreams of the protagonist and its arrival is anticipated by many of the other characters. They don’t know any more about it but we, the audience, know its name. Katrina. The threat of the great storm and its sad aftermath hangs over “Marcus” and permeates its action. Whether it is a metaphor or simply the villain hiding in the wings I cannot say. Maybe both. But it is foretold in the rain projected on a video screen at the rear of the stage, in the umbrellas used by ladies dancing to a funeral dirge (an actual New Orleans custom) and the wish of the title character, a Louisiana teenager confused about his sexual identity, for the waters to rise up and swallow him.
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s third play in his “Brother/Sister Trilogy” is a coming-of-age story, and a very specific coming-of-age as a homosexual African-American story at that. Many laurels have been heaped on the head of the 30-year-old playwright from the projects of Miami who went on to Yale graduate school, and his work has received major productions in New York, London and Chicago. In San Francisco, the “Trilogy” has been a collaborative effort between the Marin Theater Company, Magic Theater and, now, ACT. It enriches the experience to have seen the first two plays before “Marcus,” but enough back story is provided so that it is not necessary.
Marcus (Richard Prioleau) is gay, “sweet” in the parlance of the bayou— or maybe not. He thinks so— but he isn’t sure. Did he inherit this from his father? He doesn’t know and nobody is telling. Babied by his widowed mother (Margo Hall), with no strong male figures in his life, he hangs out with a couple of girls, one of them, Osha (Shinelle Azoroh), more than a little in love with him. The other, Shaunta, is played by the fabulous Omozé Idehenre, fast becoming a shining jewel in the crown of ACT stalwarts. When the innocent, sensitive title character meets a tough bisexual guy, Joshua from the Bronx (a very good Tobie L. Windham), he sets about finding out more about his “sweetness.” And what he learns only confuses him more.
In addition to Marcus’ mother, a woman with a secret, Hall also plays Osha’s trash-talking mama and the elderly, slightly addled Elegua, a character that may have mythic overtones but, for my money, was totally extraneous. She does them all well. Jared McNeill has a nice turn as Terrell, a schoolmate with eyes for Osha and scornful of Marcus. ACT regular Gregory Wallace is Ogun Size, a neighbor who knows more of Marcus’ family history than he is telling. Mark Rucker directs.
McCraney’s technique combines magical realism, some poetic language, street slang, folk history and Yoruba mythology. He frequently has his characters deliver the stage directions— a device that elicits more laughter than illumination. His teenagers— and the young people do dominate the action— are realistically drawn. Yet, “Marcus” left me with a feeling that I ought to have liked it more than I did. There is humor here, and sadness and a look into lives that are very different from those of most theatergoers who can afford to pay for a seat. What may be lacking is identification. Or maybe, what you see is simply what you get and, for some of us, that may not be enough.