By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tea Alagic
Produced by Foundry Theater. Presented by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
There’s something electrifying about a fresh, new voice and perspective in theater. That’s why Tarell Alvin McCraney’s new work is getting so much buzz.
His Brothers Size started off as a theater exercise for his friends at the Yale School of Drama, and has become the rage nationwide. Brothers Size is an innovatively new approach to the theater using the heartbeat of the drum, stylized expressive dance movement, legacy and ritual, to explore the relationship of brothers.
The rather strange title simply refers to the brother’s surname – Size. The characters were modeled after Yoruba deities which plunges the story deep in culture and legacy. While on the surface the play is set in rural Louisiana with references to the Bayou, its core is deeply rooted in West African mythology. Ogun, the spirit of iron, is refashioned as the elder, more responsible brother, an expert auto mechanic, while Oshoosi, the hunter wanderer, is represented by the younger rather careless brother more prone to wayward wanderings who has had a brush with the law. And Elegba, the seducer, takes on the role of trickster.
Even from the first moments, before the utterance of a spoken word, the drumbeat speaks. Master percussionist Shaun Kelly is as much an integral part of the production as the three actors. Kelly maintains the flavor of each scene through his various instruments, and in particularly original passages even orchestrates the sound effects with uncanny precise timing. Director Tea Alagic has orchestrated the ensemble steeped in treasured folklore, setting the tone with formation of a circle of sand at the very beginning, to the ingenious work song later in the production.
My commenting on the effectiveness of the accompanist and director before the actors is by no means a subtle aspersion about the performers to devalue or minimize their work-quite the contrary. It’s a reflection of the integrity of the piece as a whole. All of the structural elements are essential components. The placement and movement of the actors, whether flushed bare-chested against the back wall of the stage, or crouched in stealthy movements, or negotiating their positions inside or outside of the circle, or dealing with the intended or inevitable consequences of their interactions with each other – these physical and emotional elements are as integral to the production as the actual individual actors, and that might be one of the most remarkable things about this piece as a work of art. It reflects the basic and simple elements of theater at their most fundamental level.
We get so caught up in the high voltage star power, and the latest “idol,” that it becomes almost rare to experience what can happen when theater is stripped to its essence, without sets or glamorous costumes. The steady rhythm of the drum and other percussive instruments helps position the audience as participants who could just as easily be sitting around a camp fire, each baring witness to an ancient ritual in the unfolding of these breathtakingly simple scenes. It’s quite an emotional experience, and the actors help to make it all happen.
They all deliver remarkable, standout performances-
Gilbert Owuor as Ogun the older brother carries the weight of responsibility with every statement, every pause, every ounce of his being. The passage where he tries to forcibly convince his brother to admit that he messed up with tough love repetition is astonishingly effective. Brian Tyree Henry as Oshooi the younger brother, is all careless and carefree energy with a “jump first, then look” approach to life. Elliot Villar is absolutely riveting as Elegba the change agent with slow, stalking movements and cougar-like intensity, always plotting the next get over scheme while escaping capture.
One of McCraney’s special talents is his ability to convey the absolute depth of emotion without feeling sentimental, maudlin, or forced. Instead, the play gets to the heart of what brotherly love is all about, whether rooted as family, or grafted from intense shared experience. The play, McCraney says, asks: “How does one maintain brotherhood over distance, time, hurt and pain?” He tackles these issues with a depth that far exceeds his years, in a piece “inspired by Yoruba life and traditions, steeped in Southern rhythms and cadences, and seamed shut with fire of urban music and dance.” That’s just his natural expressive style-imagine an entire production filled with such lyrical language, ancient rhythms and movement, with an explosive, cutting edge intensity. It’s magical.
A master storyteller, just 27 years old and fresh out of the Yale, McCraney is already gaining an international reputation. The Royal Court Theatre in London has invited him to stage a dance and theater project. A collaborative piece, Breach, about survivors of Hurricane Katrina is in production, and another part of his trilogy of “Brother/Sister Plays” will be presented by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.
In an eerie cosmic balance, the girl-gang story Breath, Boom currently playing upstairs in Second Stages, complements issues raised in the main stage below – both question loyalty, bonds sealed by shared experiences, high stakes, and real life decisions of survival. By offering these two thought-provoking productions, Studio Theatre has done it again – recognized the power and significance of innovative and powerful new voices, while passionately trying to share the gifted offerings with all who will just come.
Running time: approx 1:30
When: thru Feb 10th
Where: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. (14th and P), Washington, DC
Tickets: $34 – $49
Info: Call, 202-332-3300 or visit the website.