When junior acting major Ogunde Snelling found out he was cast in the Department of Theatre’s upcoming production, “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet,” he said it was insane how similar he was to his character, Marcus, a young black man coming to terms with his sexuality.
“This is the first type of play where I’ve been able to play a character that’s written as gay and black and around my age,” Snelling said. “I, of course, have gone through coming to realize what it means to be gay [and] what gay is. Going through all the teasing, the jokes, the ridicule, having to overcome that and still having the passion and drive despite all these people tearing you down — [that’s] something very similar that I share with Marcus.”
Set in a small African-American neighborhood in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, the play focuses on Marcus and his best friend Osha, who is portrayed by sophomore musical theater major Hannah Whitley.
“I think at its root, ‘Marcus’ is a story about community and how a community maneuvers through questions… [and] devastation, but how at the end of the day, the community is still a community, and the love is always there,” Whitley said.
Some of the themes explored in the play are homosexuality, death, love and heartbreak, which Snelling said he believes audience members can relate to.
“Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet” opens at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20 in University Theatre. Additional performances will be 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 2:30 p.m. Sept. 22. The cost to attend is $18 for the general public and $15 for faculty, staff, students and seniors. Tickets can be purchased at Ball State’s Box Office or online.
“It’s just important to see the struggle that millions have gone through alone,” Snelling said. “If someone sees that on stage and knows that their struggle isn’t only theirs and sees that things can get better — that’s why we need to explore these topics on stage.”
The department’s rendition of “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet” stays true to playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script with an all African-American cast.
“There’s so many things that I have learned about the black community through ‘Marcus,’” Whitley said. “As an African-American woman, I have learned so much about the black community through being in this show.”
Whitley, who was involved in the plays “Romeo and Juliet” and “Bye Bye Birdie” earlier this year, said preparing for her role in “Marcus; Or or the Secret of the Sweet” doesn’t compare to her past roles.
“Going through [being in a] Shakespearean play to a Golden-Age musical to now a very contemporary piece of art in ‘Marcus,’ I learned that every part requires a different part of you,” Whitley said. “No part is the same [and] no process has been the same. All of them have been hard, but this is the show that I feel closest to my character.”
An aspect of the script Snelling said he admires is the lack of oppression and racial issues seen in the community.
“This show is an all black cast, and not once in the show is there commentary on race or the inequality of race,” Snelling said. “I think it’s very important to see these people not by the color of their skin, but for you to know that black people deal with problems of love and relationships, and it’s not all based on because they’re black. It’s because they’re human.”
During rehearsals, which began the week of Aug. 11, choreographer Mya Ajanku helped with the pronunciation of character names in the play. She also researched the personalities typically associated with the characters’ names to decide what colors and dances would fit each character.
While there is only one musical number in “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet,” audience members will still see actors dancing throughout the show.
“If you think about your normal day, you might be dancing when you’re warming up your coffee in a microwave, so dance kind of happens in that space within the show,” Ajanku said. “I think that that’s a big thing too — it’s more about movement rather than dance choreography… If the movement is completely effective, then you almost won’t notice the dance. It will just feel like a normal day.”
To organize the play’s choreography, Ajanku said she watched cast members dance without instruction to music playing in the beginning of rehearsals. Then, she crafted the choreography on dances the actors already knew and were comfortable with.
Because of the play’s choreography and poetic language throughout its dialogue, Whitley said the show is “a piece of art.”
“It’s a play, but we have music and dance, a lot of movement and a lot of poetry,” Whitley said. “You don’t usually get to find poetry with music and dance to tell a story. It’s usually a straight play or a musical, [but ‘Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet’] has a lot of realism. It also has a fantastical, whimsy side. This show is completely different from any show I’ve ever done.”
Breaking the fourth wall is a theatrical element audiences will see during “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet,” which is something Whitley said she is excited for.
“If you want to see real people living and breathing on the stage through a confusing and difficult time [and] see how they bring love and laughter to a time that’s confusing and scary, I think it’s the show for you,” Whitley said. “I think that if you miss [seeing] ‘Marcus; Or or the Secret of Sweet,] it’s a missed opportunity. I truly believe that you are missing a chance to live with us, to live in a different world that is alike and so different from your own.”
Contact Grace McCormick with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @graceMc564.
To view the entire gallery of photos for "Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet," visit bytebsu.com.