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Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet

Tarell McCraney's coming of age story is full of memorable characters, melodic language, and plenty of heart.

By New Jersey
Alano Miller in Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet
(© Richard Termine)
Alano Miller in
Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet
(© Richard Termine)
In many ways, 29-year old playwright Tarell McCraney is the rightful inheritor of August Wilson's mantle. He fills the fictional town of San Pére, Louisiana with memorable characters, melodic language, fresh blasts of humor, bold rhythm, gesture and action, and a tremendous amount of heart, all of which are on view in his newest work Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, where it is being presented as part of The Brother/Sister Plays. (Here, the one-hour drama runs on a double bill with The Brother Size; while the other play in the trilogy, In the Red Brown Water, runs separately.)

It's not that McCraney sounds like Wilson; McCraney uses more slang and pop references than his predecessor. His structure often leans towards cinematically short scenes. His story theater-like narration, in which actors often turn to the audience and announce their own entrance or stage direction, is entirely his own. Yet, McCraney's blend of African mythical and supernatural imagery, his melding of dialect into ear-affecting poetry, and his outbursts of song and dance, clearly bring Wilson's work to mind.

Marcus is partly a coming of age story, partly a coming out story, partly a coming to terms story (and partly an autobiographical story), which picks up some time after the end of The Brothers Size. Marcus (Alano Miller) is the son of Elegba, the homosexual ex-con in the earlier play, and his friends and neighbors say that he is "sweet" -- or homosexual. Indeed, Miller's Marcus is so naturally refined his arms gesture in right angles.

The play centers on Marcus' profound encounters with Ogun Size (Marc Damon Johnson), now a dignified old man, as much as on his budding sexual self-knowledge and with his attempts to deal with a haunting dream about a man in the rain (Brian Tyree Henry). Also involved in the story, which often delves into daydreams and flashbacks, are Marcus' two best friends, the sassy Shaunta Iyun (Nikiya Mathis, who delivers each wisecrack with wry timing) and pretty Osha (Kianné Muschett) who has a crush on him; his Aunt Elegua (Kimberly Hébert Gregory, strong and powerful with a singing voice to match ), who considers Marcus' dream, but does not find its key; and Shua (the menacing Samuel Ray Gates), a young man on the "down low" from the Bronx who is taking out Osha and with whom Marcus has his first homosexual encounter.

Director Robert O'Hara brings out the poetry and rhythm of the play, thanks in part to the efforts of a versatile, talented cast. James Schuette's steel set is a perfect backdrop for Karen Perry's colorful costumes and for McCraney's bold language, as is Lindsay Jones' evocative sound design. The rain following the man in the dream, beautifully lit by Jane Cox, is a lingering theatrical image. Indeed, much of Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet continues in the mind long after Marcus turns to us and announces "End of Play."


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