By Anne Brice, Berkeley News
It was fall 2022 and UC Berkeley’s first Black Wednesday of the year. Student Kaiyah Florence, excited to reconnect with the Black community on campus after summer break, wasn’t going to miss it.
“When I started at Berkeley in 2019, the school had fewer than 4% Black students,” Florence says. “Numbers that low let some people forget that we’re here. These events are about organizing a place for Black students to feel comfortable, not just in established Black spaces, but right in the center of the school.”
Outside the Golden Bear Café on Upper Sproul Plaza, students were playing music and games, getting to know each other.
“We do a line dance called the Berkeley Shuffle,” Florence says. “I had just come out of my shuffle when I heard someone on the mic.”
It was Margo Hall, a continuing lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performances Studies.
“I got up there and was like, ‘Hey, I’m directing this play,’” recalls Hall, who has taught acting at Berkeley for eight years. “‘It’s an all-Black play called In the Red and Brown Water. I need you guys to come out and audition.’”
Florence, a double major in legal studies and African American studies, was interested. Although she’d never acted in a play, Hall mentioned that unless more Black students auditioned, the play — the first campus production with an all-Black cast — wouldn’t happen.
So, Florence, always up for a challenge, decided to give it her best shot.
In the Red and Brown Water will open the 2022-23 season of the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies on Oct. 13. It’s the first play of The Brother/Sister Plays, a trilogy by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who’s best known for writing the story that the Oscar Award-winning film Moonlight was based on. Blending together his urban Southern background with Yoruban culture, McCraney sets the story in the projects of a fictional town in the Louisiana bayou. The central character is Oya, a gifted runner named after the Yoruban goddess of weather.
Hall sensed that Florence, who ran track in high school and was a powerful force in her own right, had what it took to play Oya.
On the day of auditions, Florence performed the monologue she prepared — “graduation nite” from Ntozake Shange’s theater piece for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.
“I felt good about it — I had prepared a lot,” she says.
But the song didn’t go as well.
“I can’t sing,” Florence says. “I chose ‘I Was Here’ by Beyoncé because I love that song and knew I wouldn’t forget the words. But the first thing out of my mouth wasn’t even a word. I think I just sang, ‘da da da da.’ And then it came to me, and I got it back together. But by that time, I was so thrown off. I can’t even remember if I sounded good or not. I just left with my fingers crossed.”
To her surprise, Florence made callbacks. Then, she got the part of Oya.
“The next thing I knew, I was in pretty deep,” she says. “Luckily, Oya doesn’t have much singing.”
On the first day of rehearsals, Florence felt unsettled. She’d never been in an acting space before, and all of her castmates seemed more comfortable, more experienced. But then Hall helped her feel that she belonged.
“She told the whole cast that after I walked out of my audition, she and her team jumped up and celebrated because they knew they’d found their Oya. Miss Margo made sure I knew that I deserved my place there, and that she believed I could do a good job. That was so special to me.”
Hall remembers Florence’s eagerness to learn at the end of the first rehearsal: “Kaiyah came to me, and she was like, ‘Teach me everything. Tell me what to do. I will do everything.’ And I said, ‘I will. I will.’”
Oya, like many of the play’s 12 characters, is complex and nuanced. At the beginning of the play, Oya is offered a scholarship to run track at a state university by a college recruiter, The Man From State (played by the one white castmember of the play). Oya sees it as her ticket out of poverty. But then, she discovers her mother is sick and dying, and Oya decides to stay home to take care of her. After her mother dies, Oya is ready to enroll, but it’s too late — the scholarship has been given to another person.
Oya, feeling directionless and reeling from the loss of her mother, tries to find love and meaning in her life. She begins a relationship with an older man, Ogun Size, and they begin to settle down. When Oya finds out she can’t have a baby, a status symbol in her community and something she desperately wants, Oya is devastated. As time goes on, she realizes that she belongs with her first love, the confident and flashy Shango, so she gently breaks it off with Ogun — only to find out that another woman is pregnant with Shango’s child.
“In the beginning, it all seems to be working out for Oya,” Florence says, “until piece by piece, things start falling off. We watch her being forced to live life, which I think is special, because as college students, a lot of us are being introduced to some of our first times living life and making harder decisions and being confronted with things we haven’t had to confront before.”
“It’s often said it’s a coming-of-age story,” Hall adds. “I think that’s true for a few characters in the play, not just for Oya. It’s a universal story, and at the same time a culturally specific story of a young Black girl in Louisiana. The layers of the story are revealed meticulously, and just when you think you know someone, they show you something else, and then something else.”
There are moments in the play when the characters speak their subtext directly to the audience. They introduce themselves. They say their stage directions. They share what’s on their minds — joy and fear and sadness and confusion — that the other characters don’t hear or see.
“It’s a very direct and outward way of acknowledging the audience — that they’re there with us, watching the play with us,” Florence says. “I think it’s a really special way to make the audience a participant in the story.”
For Florence, now a fourth-year student, being in In the Red and Brown Water has taught her that acting isn’t about becoming someone else, but instead bringing out parts of herself that she normally keeps hidden.
“I feel like I’ve figured out more about myself than I have tried to figure out someone else,” she says. “Oya experiences joy and pride, but also depression and sadness and loneliness. Those are emotions we all have. I’m not one to always highlight those more scary feelings in myself — I’m quick to keep them silent and deal with them on my own. But acting has forced me to deal with sentiments like that loudly and without apology.”
The play, says Hall, which also uses drums, humming, old hymns and African dance and movement to tell the story, has been a true collaboration, a big dance that everyone, from her ancestors to her students, has guided and shaped all along the way.
Originally published by Berkeley News