The coming of age game is about love, loss and the choices we make

two actors on stage, one lying down covering her ears, the other standing back looking away

Saman Wright as Aunt Elegua (left) and Kaiyah Florence as Oya. In Red and Brown Water is the first play fourth-year student Florence has acted in. “I feel like I’ve understood more about myself than I’ve ever tried to understand anyone else,” she says. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Dillon)

It was the fall of 2022 and the first Black Wednesday of the year at UC Berkeley. 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 less than 4% Black students,” says Florence. “Numbers so low make some people forget we’re here. These events are about organizing a space 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 in Upper Sproul Plaza, students played music and games, getting to know each other.

“We do a line dance called the Berkeley Shuffle,” says Florence. “I had just come out of the shuffle when I heard someone on the microphone.”

a person teaches an acting class

Berkeley lecturer Margo Hall teaches an acting class in 2017. Hall, who has taught acting for eight years at Berkeley, says In Red and Brown Water is the first campus production with an all-black cast. (Photo by Alessandra Mello)

It was Margo Hall, a continuing lecturer in the Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies.

“I got up there and said, ‘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 to come out and audition.”

Florence, double majoring in legal studies and African American studies, was interested. Although she had never acted in a play, Hall indicated that unless more black students auditioned, the play—the first on-campus production with an all-black cast—would not happen.

So Florence, always up for a challenge, decided to give it her best shot.

In Red and Brown Water will open the 2022-23 season of the Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies on October 13. It is his first project The Brother/Sister is playinga trilogy by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is best known for writing the story of the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight was based on. Combining his urban southern background with Yoruba culture, McCraney sets the story in the works of a fictional Louisiana bayou city. The main character is Oya, a gifted runner named after the Yoruba weather goddess.

actor on stage in tracksuit

Florence, who ran track in high school in Lancaster, California, plays Oya, who loses a college scholarship after deciding to stay home and take care of her ailing mother. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Dillon)

Hall felt 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 the auditions, Florence performed her prepared monologue – “graduation night” from Ntozake Shange’s play about girls of color who have thought about killing themselves / when the rainbow is enu.

“I felt good about it – I had prepared a lot,” he says.

But the song didn’t do so well.

“I can’t sing,” says Florence. “I chose Beyoncé’s ‘I Was Here’ because I love that song and I 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 disappointed. I can’t even remember if I sounded good or not. I just left with my fingers crossed.”

To her surprise, Florence made callbacks. He then took Oya’s side.

“The next thing I knew, I was in too deep,” he says. “Fortunately, Oya doesn’t have much of a song.”

three actors on stage, one saying something to the other

Trevonne Bell as Shango (left), Florence as Oya (center) and Saman Wright as Aunt Elegua. When Oya realizes that she wants to be with Shango, her first love, she breaks up with the elder Ogun, only to discover that another woman is pregnant with Shango’s child. “It’s often said to be a coming-of-age story,” says Hall. “I think that applies to a few characters in the play, not just Oya.” (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Dillon)

On the first day of rehearsals, Florence felt upset. She had never set foot in an acting field before and all her teammates seemed more comfortable, more experienced. But then Hall helped her feel like she belonged.

“She told the whole cast that after I walked out of my audition, she and her team jumped and celebrated because they knew they had found their Oya. Miss Margo made sure I knew I deserved my place there and that she thought I could do a good job. It was so special to me.”

Hall recalls Florence’s eagerness to learn at the end of the first rehearsal: “Kaya came to me and said, ‘Teach me everything. Tell me what to do. I will do anything.’ And I said, “I will. I will.'”

two actors talking on stage

Geovany Calderon as Elegba (left) and Ítarala Gamboa Cayetaño as Mama Moja. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Dillon)

Oya, like many of the 12 characters in the play, 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 play’s one white member). Oya sees this as her ticket out of poverty. But then she finds out that 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 upset by 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 discovers that she cannot have a baby, a status symbol in her community and something she desperately wants, Oya is devastated. As time passes, she realizes that she belongs to her first love, the confident and flamboyant Sango, so she gently breaks up with Ogun – only to discover that another woman is pregnant with Sango’s child.

“At first, everything seems to be working for Oya,” says Florence, “until piece by piece, things start to fall apart. We watch her being forced to live life, which I think is special because as college students, a lot of us know some of the first times we’re living our lives and making harder decisions and dealing with things we didn’t have to do. face before”.

two actors on stage, one hand on each other's cheek

Trevonne Bell as Shango and Florence as Oya. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Dillon)

“It’s often said to be a coming-of-age story,” adds Hall. “I think that applies to a few characters in the play, not just Oya. It is 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 meticulously revealed, 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 tell their subject directly to the audience. They introduce themselves. They say their stage directions. They share what’s on their mind—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,” says Florence. “I think it’s a really special way to get the audience involved in the story.”

For Florence, now a fourth-year student, who is at In Red and Brown Water it has taught her that acting is not about becoming someone else, but instead about bringing out parts of herself that she usually keeps hidden.

three actors on stage

Florence as Oya, Saman Wright as Aunt Elegua and Ítarala Gamboa Cayetaño as Mama Moja. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Dillon)

“I feel like I’ve understood more about myself than I’ve ever tried to understand anyone else,” he says. “Oya experiences joy and pride, but also depression and sadness and loneliness. These are feelings we all have. I’m not one to always bring out these scariest feelings in myself — I’m quick to shut them up and deal with them on my own. But acting has forced me to face such feelings loudly and unapologetically.”

The work, says Hall, which also uses drumming, humming, old hymns and African dance and movement to tell the story, was a true collaboration, one big dance that everyone from her ancestors to her students guided and form throughout. the way.


In Red and Brown Water will run from October 13th to October 16th. Next month, TDPS will present The Late Weddingan unpredictable work by Berklee Alum Christopher Chen that celebrates the magic and mystery of theater.

Purchase tickets and learn more about upcoming fall and spring performances on the Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies website.

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