Nevada Conservatory Theatre presents an Oscar winner’s coming-of-age tale

Dominic Graber-Pritchard as Marcus Eshu
Photo: Richard Brusky / Courtesy

It’s the eve of Hurricane Katrina, and 16-year-old Marcus is entering a storm of his own. The “sweet” or gay boy is struggling with his identity, his relationships and some overarching secrets. Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet is a coming-of-age-tale told in an innovative way by Oscar-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney. It runs at Nevada Conservatory Theatre February 14-23.

McCraney is best known for the 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight, but before that, he wrote a trio of plays known as “The Brother/Sister Plays.” Marcus completes the three. Just don’t call it a trilogy, says New York City-based guest director Kevin R. Free. The plays are interlocking, but they stand alone like a triptych of paintings. With nine cast members—including Dominic Graber-Pritchard in the title role—Marcus allows for the most UNLV students to gain experience working with professionals.

Free, who saw the other two plays off-Broadway, calls Marcus his favorite. When he read the script, he said to himself, “‘Oh my gosh, this play is so beautiful and abstract and exciting and dreamlike.’ I really wanted to direct it.”

Free also has a personal connection to the story. “It is, like me, a black, gay story about a boy coming out. It has all these universal themes, because it’s a coming-of-age story. But the central figure is a queer black man. That excited me.”

One of the joys of Marcus is its abstract storytelling, which is nonetheless entertaining and approachable. Free says the storyline is easy to follow, even as mysteries unfold. “The play is about open secrets and secret secrets,” Free says. “And the play itself has a secret that I won’t tell you about.” Free calls the script “poetic” and “highly theatrical,” but quickly adds that the story is both very funny and “really, really fun.”

Don’t take his word for it. A glowing review in Variety said, “Characters are invested with a size and weight beyond their meager daily lives.” The New York Times called McCraney “a master of language and dramatic construction” and described his plays as “Shakespearean in a down-home vernacular.”

NCT’s set will look a bit like a playground, with multiple levels and even water onstage. “The spectacle of this play competes with some of the Las Vegas shows that you can see on the Strip,” Free says. “The emotional spectacle matches the spectacle of Vegas storytelling, with the acrobats and the jugglers.”

Free also speaks highly of the student actors of Nevada Conservatory Theatre. “They’re some of the most passionate students I’ve ever worked with,” Free says. “When they’re not called to rehearsal they show up anyway, just because they want to watch everybody else doing their work.”

MARCUS; OR THE SECRET OF SWEET February 14-23, dates & times vary, $18-$20. Ham Fine Arts’ Black Box Theatre at UNLV, 702-895-2787.

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