Landing near-simultaneous professional debuts in New York and London might be indication enough that an unknown 27-year-old playwright is one to watch, but the real proof comes in the work itself.
Landing near-simultaneous professional debuts in New York and London might be indication enough that an unknown 27-year-old playwright is one to watch, but the real proof comes in the work itself. A recent M.F.A. graduate of Yale School of Drama, Tarell Alvin McCraney brings assured stagecraft and a distinctive lyrical voice to “The Brothers Size,” the story of two siblings in Bayou country, Louisiana, weaving together contemporary urban conflict and West African myth in a rich language that’s both poetic and colloquial.
Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis added the production to his fall schedule after it was seen earlier this year in the Public’s Under the Radar Festival. Eustis also has signaled his interest in developing and presenting McCraney’s entire trilogy, “The Brother/Sister Plays,” of which “The Brothers Size” is part.
Director Tea Alagic and the athletic trio of actors have been involved with the project since Yale. A separate production opens Nov. 13 at London’s Young Vic, with a staging at Dublin’s Abbey Theater to follow.
The ritualistic physicality of Alagic’s production is evident immediately, as percussionist Jonathan M. Pratt pounds drums on the side of the playing space while the shirtless actors step onto the almost bare stage and assume positions against the rear wall. Sole set element is a tight circle of white stones in the center, which serves as the uneasy bed on which Ogun (Gilbert Owuor) and Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry) sleep and dream.
Having raised his younger brother since their mother’s death, hard-working auto-shop owner Ogun feels the burden of responsibility and guilt every time directionless Oshoosi screws up. Fresh out of prison, the parolee bristles at his brother’s expectations and disappointment, resisting Ogun’s attempts to hustle him out of bed each morning to lock him into a job and a straight-and-narrow routine.
The fragile understanding between the siblings is threatened when Oshoosi’s prison buddy, Elegba (Elliot Villar), starts hanging around. An insidious charmer whose smiling, stalking presence in red trousers is the essence of temptation, Elegba draws a chalk circle around the brothers, upping his hand in their fate with a gift to Oshoosi of a car.
McCraney uses the brothers’ vividly enacted dreams and a series of evocative monologues to add detail to their world: Ogun recounts a sad story of a high school flame who mutilated herself to prove her love for his philandering friend; Oshoosi talks of losing himself in a prison library photo book about Madagascar, its images promising spiritual connection and escape; Ogun has a nightmare vision of Oshoosi and Elegba bound together, unable to separate.
There’s room for further maturity in the playwright’s story skills. The ending lacks punch, and narrative depth and character development don’t match the sinewy muscularity of the language, making the one-act play feel stretched despite clocking in at a lean 90 minutes.
But even as it deals with familiar themes — love and sacrifice; the conflict between brothers on opposite paths; the destabilizing forces of a prejudiced environment; the opposing pull of freedom and responsibility — the writing has freshness, clarity and vitality.
Alagic’s movement-based direction finds graceful correlatives for the insistent tribal rhythms of McCraney’s text, with Burke Brown’s sharp lighting and Pratt’s driving percussion adding further urgency to the spare but dynamic staging.
The three actors show impressive discipline, making seamless music out of dialogue that combines loose, slangy speech with stylized semi-verse, song and spoken stage directions. Henry and Owuor, in particular, generate real heat between them, the hurt that marks their bond and their division finding joyful, moving release when Oshoosi sings along with Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”