Partly spiritual, very funny and altogether grabbing, Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet is the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale by Tarell Alvin McCraney - at age 29, a master storyteller and one of the American theater's boldest, brightest new voices.
Marcus has a production that reaches the high bar that McCraney sets in his playwriting, in an A-one staging by Robert O'Hara at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, where it opened this weekend, a joint effort with New York's Public Theater.
McCarter and the Public are producing McCraney's entire trilogy of dramas set in the Louisiana "distant present," as the playbill says. Marcus is the second half of an evening that begins with another one-act, The Brothers Size, a stirring piece about two adult brothers who mostly get along by not getting along - also an excellent, stark staging by O'Hara.
The other part of the trilogy, In the Red and Brown Water, is a full-length play McCarter opened earlier this month - and also a theatrical sizzle, staged by Tina Landau. All three, called "The Brother/Sister Plays," are now in repertory at McCarter, with the same troupe often playing characters in one play, progeny in another.
You needn't see them all; they can stand alone. But seeing all three is a fulfilling experience. McCraney sets up a world that hustles you from the start, and you don't want to let it go - his compelling storytelling locks you in.
McCraney, who graduated from Yale drama two years ago, is on a fast track to becoming an American theater name. On Wednesday, the New York Times will present him its first Outstanding Playwright Award, honoring a playwright with a recent professional New York debut, for The Brothers Size, which has already played the Public Theatre. (The entire trilogy will travel to the Public, and Chicago's Steppenwolf.)
McCraney draws his "Brother/Sister" stories - with sculpted characters, funny lines, surprise twists and often-poetic dialogue that sounds as natural as daylight - from what he knows.
He grew up in the Miami projects, a black kid dealing with being gay, like his character Marcus, and with much more: a brother who went off to prison, a drug-addicted mother who died from AIDS. He harnesses tragedy and everyday experience into work with power and beauty, using not just one particular segment of modern black American life as his cultural reference, but also West African myth.
His keen sense is evident in all three plays - and at Princeton, the actors are with him all the way. Alano Miller, who recently got his master's from Penn State, is a revelation to watch as he plays a boy in one play, the man version in another, and the man's son as Marcus. Heather Alicia Simms plays Marcus' concerned modern mom with real insight.
Marc Damon Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry have explosive chemistry in the title roles of The Brothers Size; Kimberly Hébert Gregory couldn't be better as a take-no-prisoners aunt in two of the plays. And Marcus' friends, played by Kianné Muschett and Nikiya Mathis, seem to pop onto the stage directly from the street. Just like these plays.
Presented by McCarter Theatre and the Public Theater at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, through June 21. Tickets: $15-$49.
Information: 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
The plays can be seen alone
or as part of a trilogy called "The Brother/Sister Plays." McCarter is presenting the other play, "In the Red and Brown Water," concurrently. EndText