Like In the Red and Brown Water playing in the main house, this welcome revival of Tarell Alvin's McCraney’s first play, The Brothers Size in the Maria – re-mounted by the ATC and Young Vic and touring next month to Scarborough, Berlin and Manchester -- is set in “the distant present.”
The three characters of an all-black backwater in San Pere, Louisiana, by the bayou, are snapped in a pincer movement of experience and critical memory. This is why they speak their own stage directions, forge rhythmic riffs in their arguments and create such a distinctive, poetic and startlingly immediate theatrical effect in their altercations.
The events of Water are partly summarised by Ogun Size, the car mechanic, in explaining to his younger brother Oshoosi what happened to Oyu, his girlfriend: she started seeing the soldier Shango, discovered she was infertile, cut off her own ear.
In the bigger, second play, Oyu is the crux and Ogun a peripheral agent in her mythical tragedy. Here, the mechanic is the focal point in a tense, fraternal tug-of-love. Young Oshoosi is fresh from the penitentiary on parole but he doesn’t seem to have learned his lesson. The brothers’ sparring is attended by the snake-like Elegba, Oshoosi’s prison mate and alternative provider of stolen cars and drugs.
It’s hard to summarise what happens in the play beyond the irresistible surge of its playing in Bijan Sheibani’s production. The new cast do not seem like make-weights for the first. And they fit the intimate proportions of the Maria studio to perfection, drawing the white chalk circle within which the dance of rivalry and retribution is engaged.
Daniel Francis as Ogun and Tunji Kasim as Oshoosi lance their sibling sparring and fractious fraternity in a sublime, rhythmically shifting version of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” while newcomer Anthony Welsh as the lithe and free-spirited Elegba goads from the sidelines as though he’s been on the stage all his life, an impressive debut.
This synthesis of Nigerian folk tale and Louisiana patois, mixed in with an unerring theatrical instinct, is proving a potent source of energy in one of the most distinctive new voices in our theatre for some time.
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from 14 November 2007.
This is an extraordinary piece of work: an everyday story which is also a poem; a modern American drama steeped in Yoruba mythology; sophisticated, self-aware writing which is also simple and clear.
The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, an ATC/Young Vic co-production, is the first part of this young American writer’s Brother/Sister Trilogy. Ogun and Oshoosi are two brothers living in Louisiana. Ogun is the reliable, hard-working older sibling; Oshoosi is on parole, more fun-loving and less keen to take responsibility. Elegba, Oshoosi’s cell-mate, presents him with possible trouble in the form of a clapped-out car and illicit drugs.
These three, superbly acted by Nyasha Hatendi, Obi Abili and Nathaniel Martello-White respectively, play out their relationships in the round within a freshly-drawn chalk circle, backed by discreet but fitting music played by Manuel Pinheiro.
The interest of the play is entirely in the intensity of the relationships, especially the fierce but problematic bond between the brothers. Yet McCraney plays with the idea of theatre, having his characters speak stage directions so that we are never allowed to forget that this is a story, a ritual. There is a self-consciousness about the characters’ particular brand of African-American English too; several times they specifically refer to - even make fun of - the choice of a word or phrase.
The helpful Young Vic website provides the information that Ogun is the Yoruba god of iron, that Oshoosi, the name of his brother, means “wanderer”, and Elegba was the deity of the crossroads who offered choices and temptations.
But the characters are recognisable from any society; the brothers with their shared memories and blood-thicker-than-water closeness (which ironically leads to a desire to save rather than believe Oshoosi on Ogun’s part) and the friend who wishes to be at least as influential as a brother, could be from any time or place. Ogun tries to pull Oshoosi into line by surrogate parenting before accepting him for what he is and - as they sing “Try a Little Tenderness” together in bantering harmony - revealing the depth of his familial feeling.
Bijan Sheibani’s sympathetic direction allows the play to speak freely, powerfully, in full poetic voice.
- Heather Neill