In an unusually useful program note, Syracuse Stage producing artistic director Tim Bond tells us why the final production, The Brothers Size, breaks rank with the rest of the season’s offerings. Bond says that as soon as he saw the Tarell Alvin McCraney drama at the Under the Radar Festival five years ago, he knew he wanted to direct it, and he knew that to portray its power and intimacy required a three-quarter round stage.
That’s one of the reasons The Brothers Size is being seen on the smaller, three-quarter-round Storch Theater stage instead of next door in the Archbold. Additionally, in the Storch we look down on the action and always see the players’ feet. This is a dance show, and to miss the footwork would rob audiences of too much of what happens.
Before we see anything or hear a spoken word we hear the thunder of African drums. Players dance their ways in, not yet taking the roles they will play. We immediately recognize one with the body of a gymnast (Rodrick Covington) as an experienced dancer, and when we check the credits, sure enough, he performed the lead in a touring company of Fosse. Also in the program, we notice the name of choreographer Patdro Harris, fondly remembered for his staging of Regina Taylor’s Crowns in May 2009. As we might expect, then, we have displays of rhythmic movement before the story begins and at intervals through the brief hour-and-40-minute dramatic action.
The program also tells us that the characters in the play live in San Pere, La., “near the Bayou,” but you could never tell that from what we see. Scenic and costume designer Jess Ford and lighting designer Geoff Korf have set the action in Africa. In a departure from the practice in other productions, we have a nominally bare stage on which director Bond’s three-quarter is demarcated by a luminous white circle. We think it’s paint at first, because it reflects distant light, but the circle can be breached. Upstage is the facade of a dwelling in which lighting man Korf can call up a furnished room.
These are the accoutrements of magical realism, which might have originated in Latin America rather than Africa, but we know we’re in a world that has rejected the realism of Western theater than begat Henrik Ibsen. Playwright McCraney might have grown up in the gritty reality of public housing in Florida’s Liberty City, but he’s taking us into the realm of myth.
When the brothers emerge, they are revealed to be on-the-ground people, except for their names. The older brother Ogun (Joshua Elijah Reese) is the hard-working owner of an auto repair business. We know that he was once married and laments the loss of that wife, and has fathered a child. He speaks in favor of all the lower bourgeois virtues, like prudence, temperance, patience and delaying pleasures.
The younger brother, Oshoosi (Rodrick Covington), looks like an opposite number. Recently released from prison, he displays none of his brother’s work ethic. His fecklessness is intertwined with charm, however. Responsible adults in the audience will find their sentiments divided between the brother who gets things done and the one who’s more fun.
Joining them is a shorter man in a smashed topper, the insinuating Elegba (Sam Encarnacion), who had been Oshoosi’s cellmate in prison, where he comforted him in ways the young man does not wish to think about. Not that Oshoosi is gay like the playwright, a subject he has addressed in a separate trilogy titled Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet. Oshoosi is unmistakably heterosexual and lusts to hook up with the right or even the wrong woman.
So why should American characters have such African names? A partial explanation comes in Oshoosi’s speech, telling us that he has picked up a magazine about Madagascar in which the people look just like him.
Once again, the play’s program proves indispensable. McCraney tells us of meeting in a Florida Starbucks a man well-schooled in Caribbean Santaria, the religion that fuses Christianity with the Yoruba pantheon from West Africa, not Madagascar. Recent DNA studies have shown that most American blacks derive from populations captured along a range of the West African coast where the cultivated and subtle Yoruba flourished. It would not be a stretch to say that the Yoruba are the Greeks of African Americans.
Ogun is the orisha or deity of war and iron, and thus is here an iron-worker with a sense of drive. He has many counterparts in world mythology, such as the Greek Hephaestus. Oshoosi represents the hunter and tracker, as well as wanderer, not unlike Orion. And Elegba, a messenger of the gods, is a deity of the crossroads, a shapeshifter and a trickster. He has many counterparts in North American Indian mythology as well as Hermes among the Greeks, and Loki among the Norse. He is, nonetheless, a deeply African figure who survives in black American folklore and also shows up in Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Haitian-themed Once on This Island.
Like all playwrights drawing on mythic characters, McCraney still has plenty of room to give us the unexpected. Oshoosi, the weaker vessel, is likely to backslide and screw up, returning to the slammer. He does not need malign temptations. Instead, he croons a call for compassion from his upright brother, Otis Redding’s revamping of a standard from the 1930s, “Try a Little Tenderness.” Mythological characters are not going to change. The Brothers Size offers conflict and rising tension, not transformation.
McCraney, 31, built his sterling reputation on his dramaturgy, not his storytelling. He’s the hot, young black playwright breaking into trend-setting venues like Chicago’s Goodman and London’s Old Vic because he is creating a new theatrical language. The people in Lorraine Hansberry’s breakthrough Raisin in the Sun (1958) talked just like characters in Clifford Odets dramas. Even the much-loved August Wilson, with all the rhythms of the black street in his dialogue, resembles Tennessee Williams. In McCraney’s Brothers/Sisters Trilogy, of which The Brothers Size is most frequently performed third, we’re getting something incantatory and rhythmic.
Some audiences will complain that perhaps 20 percent of the words are lost to their ears, a flaw in the performance that should be addressed, but meaning is not lost. It’s a ballet in which characters speak and chant.
Just how real Africans will embrace this created African theater will
be put to the test next month. Syracuse Stage’s production of The Brothers Size opens
in the Baxter Theatre Center in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 19,
followed by the Market Theatre in Johannesburg on June 10.
This production runs through May 12. See Times Table for information.