Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet

by John Stoltenberg

Last night I had the great satisfaction of watching Howard University students take on the challenge of a certifiably risk-taking play—Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet—and with it showcase nine student actors who took risks in performance that delivered an eveningful of moment-to-moment emotional payoffs.

By the end I had no doubt that the director, Maleke Glee, a Howard senior making his directorial debut, is a rising artist to watch.  I could only surmise how much sensitivity, support, and insight he brought to the process of eliciting, shaping, and pacing those nine talented performances. With a power-packed script in hand, he took the actors places that took us places—exactly as one hopes of pros.

Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet is set on a Louisiana bayou during the weather run-up to Hurricane Katrina, so the play has a lot of rainfall in it, evoked like a liquid kaleidoscope by Lighting Designer Khaiya Darnell (who also makes the play’s dream scenes lovely to look at). Scenic Designer Sarah Alexandria Evans creates a multipurpose playing space out of crisscrossing docklike runways that seem to suggest deep water lies always nearby.

The central character, 16-year-old Marcus, is in search of himself—in particular his sexuality. He is struggling with being “sweet,” meaning gay, and urgently needs to know if his dead father was too. In Austin Farrow’s arrestingly nuanced performance we see Marcus grow from timid and troubled to ebullient as he comes out and comes more into himself.

Two girls are Marcus’ “besties”—Shaunta (Devonne Bowman) and Osha (Brianna Naadira McAdoo). The interrelationship among Marcus, Shaunta, and Osha  that runs throughout the play is both charming and moving (not least because Osha has a crush on Marcus that he cannot reciprocate). Bowman’s and McAdoo’s fascinatingly exuberant performances bring the intimacies and complexities of their friendships vividly to life. And their Act Two dream sequence—when the three cut loose to a terrific dance track from Sound Designer Kemai Ballard—was a showstopping delight.

Two young male characters trigger Marcus’ inner torment in different but related ways. The first we meet is an agemate, Terrell, who taunts Marcus cruelly for being sweet and lusts after his bestie Osha. Martese Caudle brought to the role a thuglike swagger and aggression that would be borderline off-putting had he not made it so hilarious. When he beat a hasty exit in pursuit of (his words) Osha’s ass, the sold out opening night audience fell out.

The other of Marcus’ young male foils is 22-year-old Shua, who is visiting from the Bronx and who seduces Marcus into what becomes his first sexual experience. The brazen eroticism and braggadocio that Mericus Adams brought to the role was nothing short of  electrifying. The several scenes between Adams and Farrow generated a homoerotic temperature that went considerably past hot. And purely as acting craft, their work together was a master class in risk taking.

Emanating from  Marcus’ coming-of-age narrative are matters with repercussions in a community of other characters, and excellent performances were turned in by actors playing these people:  Taylor Hunt as Shun, Osha’s mother; Khadija Jamila Roane as Oba, Marcus’ mother; Latoya Nzingha Lewis as Elegua, an elder; and Neko Ramos as Ogun, Elegua’s nephew. All of them rose well to the perennial student-production challenge of playing characters much older than themselves, but Lewis’ commanding presence as Elegua rewarded her risk-taking with particular impact.

Costume Designer Asia McCallum brought to the production an artful mix of hip contemporary and traditional garb. Music Direct Javon Ford made  the cast’s occasional choral interludes compelling and melodious.

All in all, for any adventurous theatergoer who’s used to taking chances on unknowns, this one’s a sure bet. There’s a bunch of young talents here who won’t be unknown for long.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, including one intermission.

Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet plays through Sunday, February 14, 2016 at The Howard University’s  Al Freeman Jr. Environmental Theatre Space in Childers Hall – 2455 6th Street NW, in Washington, DC.  Purchase tickets online.