October 31, 2010

Oh, Brother!

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Correction Appended

Some theatrical productions are lavish projects with multitudes of props, large casts and elaborate special effects. Others are small, spare, unambitious affairs. The Brothers Size belongs to the latter category. Written by emerging playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who has been hailed by the New York Times as “an important new voice in American theater,” this spare play of only three actors and a handful of props reaches heights of raw emotional power and resonance that is seldom found in productions of comparable scale or ambition.

The Brothers Size tells a simple story about brothers Ogun (played by Samuel Smith) and Oshoosi (Mack Exilus) and their fraught relationships with each other and with Oshoosi’s friend, Elegba (Darian Dauchan). The premise at first seems cliché. Ogun is the hardworking, down to earth elder brother who works at a car repair shop in order to support and look out for his free-spirited younger brother Oshoosi, fresh out of prison and resentful of his brother’s oppressive influence. When Elegba, Oshoosi’s self-assured, suave pal from prison, appears on the scene, he becomes a rival to Ogun for Oshoosi’s brotherly affection and a kind of temptation for Oshoosi to escape the claustrophobic strictures of Ogun’s house when he offers Oshoosi a new car. Perhaps predictably, this offering of freedom turns out to be the catalyst that destroys the fragile and tenuous existence that the brothers have with each other.

What sets The Brothers Size apart is not the originality of its narrative, but the way in which McCraney’s inspired script, supported by three utterly talented and convincing actors with plenty of stage experience, kept the audience enthralled by its physicality and emotionality. McCraney’s play is infused with elements of Yoruba mythology, drawn from the religious traditions of that West African ethnic group. The names of the characters are taken from the guiding spirits of the Yoruba pantheon and reflect the dispositions of the characters: Ogun as the essence of war and iron, Oshoosi as the wanderer and Elegba as the trickster and shape-shifter. From the get-go, the characters break into a lively Yoruba dance that grabs the viewer’s attention and sets the tone of the play. The play continues to be infused with elements of Yoruba music, storytelling and dance which, when blended into the otherwise modern, contemporary African-American setting, gives the play a unique, refreshing and mythic vibe that is out of proportion to its mundane premise.

A play as spare as this needs talented actors to sustain it, and Dauchan, Exilus and Smith are excellent in rising up to the challenge that McCraney’s script imposes upon them. Smith, as Ogun, has a hulking but restrained animality that belies his emotional vulnerability and concern for his brother. Exilus is excellent as the irreverent, bombastic younger brother who nevertheless harbors a deep seated fear of going back to prison, a motivational factor that makes his desire to be unconstrained by his brother’s overbearing concern all the more poignant. Dauchan, as Elegba, puts on a convincing mask of carefree cynicism that underlies his own deep-seated jealousies towards Ogun in the battle for Oshoosi’s affections. Director Jesse Bush has been able to effectively marshal the talent of these actors and refine their performances such that their characters display genuine chemistry with each other.

Together, the characters are reflections of McCraney himself as a struggling, young black playwright — they are young African-American men brought up in a harsh world, having to fend for themselves in the context of a wider racial divide that exists in society. Each has his own particular and intimate vulnerabilities and insecurities, and each desires that emotional bond with one of the other characters in order to be able to live their lives.

McCraney writes his script with a consummate flair that easily switches from crude sexual humor to profound, emotionally charged moments of discourse between characters. There is at times the minor problem of incomprehensibility due to the slang-ridden nature of the characters’ lines, but this was not a major issue. The audience that night was at times convulsed in peals of laughter at Oshoosi’s antics, while at other times stunned into sudden, respectful silence during moments of high emotionality.

Among the most endearing aspects of the play are the moments of song and dance, especially when the brothers, in a precious moment of happiness, break out in a rendition of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” near the end of the play. Their exuberance, vocal power and physicality make it difficult for the audience to remain indifferent to the joy felt by the characters. As in the moments of humor and angst, the audience is always invited not just to spectate, but also participate in the emotional roller coaster that constitutes the narrative arc.

The venue for the event, the Kitchen Theatre, provided a very intimate setting for the play — the seats were so close to the stage that the actors could have come up and serenade the closest members of the audience if they wanted to. The intimate setting accentuated the emotional resonance that the audience felt because they were so close to the actors and could see the sweat trickling down their brows and the pitch-perfect expressions on their faces. David Arsenault’s discreet lighting and scene design also accentuated this closeness between audience and actors in its understated, unassuming simplicity. The post-­­play reception where wine and food were served and the actors mingled with and talked to the audience members was also a nice touch.

In essence The Brothers Size, despite its somewhat derivative premise, is nevertheless a powerful exploration into the nature of masculine love and an emotionally charged experience from one of America’s rising playwrights. McCraney has managed to distil an essence of storytelling to create a simple but compellingly elegant play that resounds on so many levels: mythic, emotional, social. It’s an achievement worth the accolades that have been heaped upon it, and a testament to the continuing vitality of the small theatrical production amongst the giants of more ambitious undertakings in the American arts.

The original article incorrectly identified the actors playing Elegba and Ogun. Elegba is in fact played by Darian Douchan, and Ogun is played by Samuel Smith. The Sun regrets this error.

Original Author: Colin Chan