Teenaged Oya sprints through the projects like a blur. State wants to give her a scholarship. But her mother is ill. So Oya stays home. Mother dies. No scholarship forth-comes. Of the three men in Oya's life, she chooses the bland businessman over the fiery soldier or the childlike mystic. She has no children. The culture blames her. Tragedy awaits.
Sad to say, the bare bones of the story sound familiar and predictable. What playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney does with it, however, is not. Like the Corridos of Mexico and Latin America, the playwright elevates Oya's plight to the status of myth. He does it, in part, by grafting three tales into one.
There's the actual Oya. She lives in a small town in Louisiana, and her scholarship could have been at L.S.U.
There's the Oya of Yoruban folk tales and Cuban Santeria, whose legend - and the legendary spell of Shango, her warrior-lover - appears to engulf the actual Oya.
The playwright also refers to Federico Garcia Lorca's Yerma, an Andalusian "tragic poem" about an allegedly barren woman who struggles to rise above her situation (though it's her marriage that's sterile).
So Oya's a triple-persona. That's fancy in theory, but even more impressive in fact at UCSD, where director Gregory Wallace deftly layers dimensions, even worlds, onto an almost bare stage.
Most striking: the characters read their stage directions. Chaz Hodges' excellent Oya, for example, says "Oya laughs." Then laughs. So the speeches are both immediate and distant, as if being acted and re-enacted at the same time (it's a neat turn on Brecht's anti-theatricality: the stage directions pull us away - were just watching a play, Brecht insists - but the speeches yank us back into emotional involvement).
Also striking: once a character announces a reaction beforehand, - "Oya laughs," say - the question becomes: of all possible kinds of laughter, which will Hodges choose - wry, besmirched, bemused, or a full-throated hardy-har? In a split-second we're inside the mind of the character and the creative imagination of the actor.
Hodges' (and the other performer's) choices become double-edged: at once apt for Oya at that moment, and yet unpredictable from the house seats. Oya is a chronically thwarted human being. Hodges walks her down a harrowing path to the "red and brown water" foreseen in a dream of her demise.
The author saysw his "fast and loose" play takes place in "the distant present." It echoes Greek tragedy by having a chorus comment on the story. They break into songs, robust rhythms, even a rap number, led by William Hodgson, as polished as the real deal.
From a cast with no weak links, standouts include: Tesiana Elie's life-embracing Aunt Elegua; Ngozi Anyanwu's bruja-like Mama Moja; and Maurice Williams' elusive Elegba.
Christopher Scott Murillo's set and Mary Rochon's costumes mirror the play's layerings. The set looks real - five brick wall loom over a concrete platform - and surreal, since at least two of the walls tilt at leaning-tower angles, and a door opens to thin air. The costumes range from Africa to the Caribbean to Louisiana. To underline the sense of a "distant present," one costume will peel off to reveal another.
Mandell Weiss Forum, UCSD, playing through December 1.