3/14/2020 THE BROTHERS SIZE Actor's Express
In the Yoruba pantheon of deities (called Orishas), Ogun presides over iron, fire, hunting, agriculture, and war. Osooso is the Orisha of the hunt, the forest, strategy, and knowledge. Elegua is the owner of roadways and paths, and is often portrayed as “Papa Legba,” who stands at a spiritual crossroads commanding access to the past and the future, as well as the roads to good and evil, and can be a bit of a trickster/tempter.
In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s (*) The Brothers Size. Ogun Size is a master of Auto Repair and owner of his own shop. His younger brother Oshoosi is a happy-go-lucky parolee, released from prison for a minor drug-related offense. It is Ogun’s task to monitor his brother, keeping him from temptation and recidivism. Elegba is Oshoosi Size’s ex-cellmate, a clever and charismatic seeker of quick pleasure and easy success. All live in small-town Louisiana, close to the Bayou, close to the heart of Yoruba in America.
This is not the first time we’ve met these characters. In 2008, he Alliance Theater staged McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water, a searingly memorable and lyrical portrait that united modern storytelling and Yoruba archetypes. In that play we see Ogun’s courtship of Oya and the dire consequences of her rejection of him, a story we hear briefly retold here. In 2015, Actor’s Express staged Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, set years later where Elegba’s son (Marcus) is sent on a spiritual journey by a dream featuring Oshoosi.
All three plays comprise what’s become known as the Brothers/Sisters Trilogy, though McCraney prefers to refer to them as a “triptych,” since they are united more by style than by narrative and can viewed in any order. As a whole, the plays draw from the legendary stories and characters and apply the archetypes to the African Experience in the American South, weaving a bright and vivid tapestry of history, poverty, sociology, sexuality, race and art. They are a singular achievement in 21st-century American theatre.
All three plays share the same stylized structure (stage directions and thoughts spoken aloud, dreams and reality intersecting and combining, characters trapped by the archetypes of their Yoruba antecedents AND by their cast-in-amber place in the American class system). But they are profoundly different. If In the Red and Brown Water is dominated by the tropes of poetry and narrative, Marcus is dominated by the tropes of music. And Brothers Size is soaked in dance, the African-inspired opening pas-de-trois that sets the stage, the emotional dance as Ogun and Elegba each draw Oshoosi to new choices and new fates.
Staged in the round, The Brothers Size brings the characters into intimate proximity showing us their sweat, their efforts, their night terrors, their love. Elegba and Ogun both treat Oshoosi as a brother, even as their conflicting pathways threaten to rend Oshoosi into pieces, leaving the Oshoosi-shards throbbing on the crossroads. Yes, one must “win” and the younger Size must choose a path, but there is enough doubt to wonder what happens next, to wonder if the road will be maintained or if there is another crossroads not too far ahead.
I’ve always been enamored of myths and archetypes, of heroic tales that reveal aspects of humanity and culture, of stories that bring “those not like us” into focus and into relevance. After seeing In the Red and Brown Water twelve tears ago, I did a (shallow) deep-dive into the Yoruba characters, recognized them when I saw Marcus, and even caught glimpses of them when American Horror Story dipped into Santeria, a Yoruba off-shoot. This play was a welcome reunion and truly gave me a good wallow in its artistic amalgam of narrative and dance and poetry, one I shall not forget soon.
The three actor/dancers proved to be a tight ensemble. Aaron Sedrick Goodson’s Ogun was a study in cold sternness, difficult to warm to, devastatingly effective when he stands up for his brother. He had a (slight) tendency to slur words and his story of Oya would have been lost on me if I hadn’t seen In the Red and Brown Water (or had such vivid memory of it after twelve years), but those lapses were rare and confined to his quieter monologues. On the other hand, Terrance White gave us an over-sized Oshoosi Size, easy-going and relaxed, except when night terrors stirred him to panic. Slow to anger, he was all the more effective when he did respond to his brother’s unending passive aggressiveness, And Ibraheem Farmer’s Elegba was lithe and charismatic, a Nigerian Loki enticing Oshoosi to choices not quite wrong enough, but definitely off the Ogun-approved roadway.
Eric J. Little’s direction (and Jelani Akil Jones’ choreography) suited the play perfectly, making its already-short running time seem to end far sooner than I would have liked, in spite of the story actually ending at the perfect point narrative-wise. I just wanted more time to soak in the music and the legend and the archetypes. The Tech Ensemble apparently worked in perfect unison, lights (Andre S. Allen) and Sound (Chris Lane) in glorious split-second synchronization, costumes (Dr. L. Nyrobi Moss) and props (Kathy Ellsworth) well-suited to keeping the characters timeless and alive.
My final wish is that someone will (eventually) stage McCraney’s triptych in repertory, letting their total effect strike with the impact of Orisha Shango’s (**) lightning bolts. Yes, I am thankful to have seen all three plays, but to be honest, the passage of time tends to dilute their combined punch. These plays, will, in my judgment, become an integral part of the American Theatre Story and deserve to be seen by as many as possible. And, to be selfish, as often as possible.
Apart from the other plays, The Brothers Size is a rapturous joy to the eyes, the ears, the heart, the life-rhythm, and the mind. It is a delight to that aesthetic center theatre lovers all have and cherish.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #aeBrothersSize @aexpress)
* Now and forever known as Academy Award Winner Tarell Alvin McCraney for his adapted screenplay for Moonlight, based on his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which, I dare say, is overdue for an Atlanta production.
** We hear of Shango in Ogun’s tale of Oya and we saw him woo her away in In the Red and Brown Water.