The Brothers Size by Pillsbury House Theatre performing in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio

Namir Smallwood and James A. Williams in The Brothers Size. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s The Brothers Size (a Pillsbury House Theatre and The Mount Curve Company co-production, performing in the Guthrie‘s Dowling Studio, through September 29) is, on a superficial level, a troubled-young-brother drama.  Oshoosi Size, recently released from the penitentiary, has moved in with his stolid older brother Ogun, automobile mechanic, and struggles: to find a job, a woman, some direction in his life.  To free himself from gnawing nightmares.  Effective, if predictable, so far as it goes.

Ah, but McCraney is working on a much larger and much more interesting canvas.  The Brothers Size (like last season’s In The Red And Brown Water) is set in rural La Pere, Louisiana, a place modern and drably workaday (Ogun owns “The Carshack”) and simultaneously charged, mythic, lyrical.  And dreamy: all 3 characters describe dreams in fascinating detail.  These men will grab you by the throat and there is nothing predictable about them.

McCraney has created the fabulous character of Elegba: the trickster, ruminative, a fellow-prisoner of Oshoosi.  He loves Oshoosi (“He was the most beautiful man I ever met”).  He slyly haunts Oshoosi’s dreams (“like a glimmer of moonlight”).  He’s a presence in Oshoosi’s waking life as well, an understated but powerful counter-balance to Ogun.  Temptation personified.  Elegba finds a Car – everything in this play has capital-letter significance – and gives it to his friend (“We’re brothers, you and I”).  The play culminates in an erotic, musicalized, moon-charged summer night, on the water and Elegba – almost – seduces Oshoosi.  Marvelous.

Is the play flawless?  No.  The speaking-out-loud of stage directions (“Elegba returns”, “Ogun goes back under the car”) rather quickly became tiresome and the long analysis of Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” felt over-wrought, off-the-mark and, for me, interfered with the emotional build of the play.  Still, The Brothers Size is grim, gritty, inspiring.

McCraney consciously models his play on Yorùbá mythology.  He names the characters after Yorùbá divinities – Ogun (iron), Elegba (the devil trickster), Ogooshi (the searcher).  This gives the characters size and intensity.  Do you need to be conversant with this culture in order to understand The Brothers Size?  Certainly not, but it wouldn’t hurt to spend 20 minutes with the article on Yorùbá religion on God’s great gift to computer users, Wikipedia, before you see it.

The actors are, to a man, brilliant.  James Williams, powerful and larger-than-life, will frighten you with his intensity and break your heart at the same time.  As Elegba, Gavin Lawrence thrills, lithe, punchy and goofy – a dangerous sprite.  And Namir Smallwood, wow.  He does bravura, expansive work, simultaneously soft yet forceful, sour and bitter yet sweet and innocent, rock-hard yet dreamy.  It’s a rich performance and if you require a reason to see The Brothers Size, well, here it is.

The play is beautifully directed by Marion McClinton.  The design – Andrea Heilman, Michael Wangen, Kalere A. Payton and Katherine Horowitz – is outstanding.  I don’t know if the drummer – Ahanti Young – is McClinton’s or McCraney’s idea, but he does terrific work, weaving in and out of the action perfectly.

The Brothers Size is the second play of McCraney’s Brother/Sister Trilogy.  In The Red And Brown Water is the first play; the third is called Marcus.  The Mount Curve Company (helmed by producer Frances Wilkinson) has acquired the rights to the trilogy.  Mount Curve and Pillsbury House will produce Marcus next season.  In a perfect world (and I continue to believe, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that we live in a perfect world) they would mount the entire trilogy, so that we can experience this moonstruck opus in its entirety.


For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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