Newcomer McCraney Pens Raw Exploration of Sibling Relations
Emerging playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney—straight out of the Yale School of Drama—is finding his voice in a raw, contemporary genre consumed with basic human survival.
Like many great artists, his drive comes from the need to make sense of his own chaotic background. In his case, it was growing up African American, dirt poor in Miami, Fla., with a mother on drugs while he looked after his siblings in her absence.
“The Brothers Size,” produced by New York’s Foundry Theatre and currently at the Studio Theatre, is a direct link to McCraney’s past. The script is part of what he calls his “Brother/Sister Plays” that deal with strained, but crucial sibling relationships. “Brothers” is set in the little town of San Pere, Louisiana, years before it was wiped away by Hurricane Katrina.
The play is about breaking down barriers and dispelling obstacles between brothers, between captivity and freedom, and—as is often the case with contemporary theater—between the audience and the action on stage.
Set designer Peter Ksander tackles the physical divides. The play is performed in the Studio Theatre’s black-box Mead Theatre with literally no set—except a circle of sand and a pile of stones representing the brothers’ living and work areas, as well as three risers built into the back wall. Except for patrons’ seats, there is little difference between the stage and audience space.
Costume designer Zane Philstrom dresses the three main characters in nothing but jeans—a half-nakedness that forces another type of intimacy with the audience.
The script also bridges culture chasms between African Americans and Africans of West African folklore, specifically the Yoruba peoples. The story was inspired by a snippet of the Yoruban poetic form dedicated to the orisha, or divinity, and each character in the play is named for and modeled after Yoruba deity.
Ogun, the spirit of iron, is re-imagined here as a hard-working auto mechanic. His brother Oshoosi, the hunter and wanderer, is out of jail on probation without a home to call his own. Oshoosi’s friend Elegba is named after the deity of paths and choices, representing the messenger and trickster who sows dissent as a way to teach life’s lessons. In the play, he is Oshoosi’s cellmate who becomes a catalyst for the brothers’ emotional growth.
African rhythms collide with the characters’ Southern cadences. Live percussion by Shaun Kelly—varying from an occasional sound effect to full-out drumming—accents the men’s colloquial speech and movement, which take the form of street slang, stylized verse, song and, at one point, choreographed tribal-like movement.
McCraney is heavy-handed with his theatrical techniques. Yet, he is clever enough to use them to hide the amateur quality of his script. Although “Brothers” received rave reviews after playing at New York’s “Under the Radar” festival and in Europe, the play is somewhat unpolished. It starts off strong, but goes through a repetitive lag before coming to a quasi-ineffective conclusion. This weakness, however, is disguised by McCraney’s unconventional use of spoken stage directions and subtext. Having the characters announce what they will do before they do it gives the production a work-in-progress feel and at the same time adds well-needed humor to the heavy plot line and themes.
The play finds most of its strength through the acting. Also recent grads of the Yale School of Drama, the actors in this production are vocally and physically commanding. Gilbert Owuor (Ogun) and Brian Tyree Henry (Oshoosi), however, are noticeably stronger than is Elliot Villar (Elegba). Owuor and Henry bring their own personalities to their respective parts, conveying a convincing struggle of love and hate while carrying the play’s emotions effortlessly with little more than their bodies and pantomime. (Besides an almost nonexistent set, props are limited to a bucket and some white dust).
Villar looks the part—he has the lithe, muscled physique of someone who has had to scrape and wheel and deal to get by—but his movements are too predictable, and he tends to mug for the audience, making him less connected to his fellow actors.
In all, the play strikes a powerful nerve with the audience. Because Ogun can only do so much to save Oshoosi from his own temptations, the production conveys an emotionally arousing and bittersweet attempt of how family can try to help each other under the harshest and most difficult conditions.
With this production, the Studio Theatre continues its noble reputation of exposing edgy new talent. McCraney, who has started young down the path to success, is apparently adhering to a motto he put in the mouth of one of his characters: “It’s good to remember death. You don’t got forever; you just got right now.”
The Brothers Size through Feb. 10 Studio Theatre 1501 14th St., NW Tickets are to For more information, please call (202) 332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.