The buckets, tubs and oil drums that serve as props and percussion instruments in part one of “The Brother/Sister Plays” conjure thoughts of bailing out a drowning world. And even before Hurricane Katrina is evoked, it’s impossible to watch the Louisiana bayou characters of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s hypnotic trilogy without picturing those people whose invisibility was shockingly exposed in the wake of that disaster. Images of water run in a lyrical vein through the interconnected plays, which draw on West African myth to tell down-home stories rich in cultural specificity, salty humor and portentous dreams.
Let’s be clear upfront that those forebodings of Katrina, which is never directly named, do not mean this is some breast-beating dirge for a wounded people. The plays depict life in the projects in the fictitious community of San Pere, where narrow prospects, poverty and crime are the norm, and where folks are always braced for tragedy. But these are spiritual works that thrum with vitality, whether it’s joyous or melancholy, told in vigorous language that artfully folds together slangy vernacular with bursts of haunting poetry.
If there’s an heir to the legacy of August Wilson, the gifted 29-year-old McCraney may be on his way to claiming that title.
The three plays are set in the “distant present” and appear to cover three or four decades. However, time is abstract and porous here, an aspect echoed in the freehand deployment of pop-culture references. For instance, neighbors party to a Beyonce song in chronological opener “In the Red and Brown Water,” while high-schoolers lip-sync to 1970s big-band disco in the closing part, “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet.”
“Memories, right, they wash over you out here,” says Ogun Size (Marc Damon Johnson) in “Marcus.” That line encapsulates the experience of these sinuous stories of bloodlines and folklore, of local legends unfolding and predestined roles being fulfilled.
Riffing on Lorca’s “Yerma” as well as McCraney’s primary source of Yoruban myth, “In the Red and Brown Water” is the story of Oya (Kianne Muschett), driven to self-mutilation by her inability to conceive a child.
A track star who defers a scholarship to care for her ailing mother (Heather Alicia Simms), Oya is torn between the affections of slick but untrustworthy Shango (Sterling K. Brown) and shy mechanic Ogun Size, whose stutter is cured when he declares his love for her. Her Aunt Elegua (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) warns of Shango, “This boy got a wickedness in his stance, a driving in his pants,” but Oya’s fatal preference for him is clear. When Shango returns from the army but rejects her and fathers a child with fair-skinned beauty Shun (Nikiya Mathis), Oya’s madness is sealed.
The adherence to classical tragedy is an encumbrance to a play firmly rooted in the contemporary world, and Tina Landau’s ritualized direction tends to magnify the mannered aspects of McCraney’s writing. But this is a compelling tale, imbued with mythological dimensions by a white-clad ensemble that functions as chorus, punctuating the dialogue with sung notes and sounds that accent the rhythmic speech.
In a device used throughout the trilogy, the characters speak their stage directions, tapping into a tradition of oral storytelling while feeding the rapport between actors and audience, which at times borders on call-and-response. During the performance of “Marcus” on the first marathon press day, when a character asked, “Did you see this coming?,” a whole clump of audience members answered, “Mm hmm.”
The second and third plays, both directed by Robert O’Hara, pick up characters (and their next generation) from part one. In “The Brothers Size,” shortened and sharpened since it was presented separately by the Public in 2007, Ogun recounts Oya’s story to his brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry), the pain of unhealed wounds still evident. And Elegba (Andre Holland), who as a child foresaw Oya’s bloody fate in a dream, has grown to be a man full of seductive trickery.
Determined to keep the recently released Oshoosi out of prison, Ogun puts him to work in his auto shop, but Elegba, Oshoosi’s former cellmate, keeps tempting him away from an honest path. The older brother’s protectiveness, love and sacrifice for his weak younger brother are offset by Ogun’s struggle to understand the bond between the two men, manifested in a vision of them bound together, unable to separate.
That vision is echoed in “Marcus” when the title character (Holland again) gets a history lesson on “Black MoPhobia” from wise-ass friend Shaunta Iyun (Mathis), who explains the origins of “sweet” as a Southern black slang term for gay. For slave owners, homosexual slaves meant fewer children and fewer slaves, so offenders were shackled together and whipped, with sugar applied to their wounds to fester in the sun.
“Marcus” is a coming-out story about Elegba’s son, but being more conventional doesn’t make the final chapter any less arresting. It’s perhaps the most complete part of the trilogy, with McCraney tenderly exploring the desire of black Americans to affirm their identity and reconnect with their cultural roots via Marcus’ hunger to know more about his late father.
The cast is dazzling, the majority of them creating indelible characterizations in multiple roles. Holland’s metamorphoses are especially remarkable, from a plucky kid to a slippery adult and then an awkward teen, just beginning to understand how to use his sexual mojo. Johnson’s quiet strength as Ogun is intensely moving, while Brown gives Shango a dangerous swagger and has fun later with a more stereotypical interloper from the Bronx who puts the moves on Marcus.
The women are equally memorable. Gregory brings indomitable spirit to Aunt Elegua and the ghetto-fabulous, boozy older Shun; Mathis lays on the bitchy attitude as young Shun and precocious worldliness as Marcus’ all-knowing school chum. Simms is formidable as Oya’s mother, her march toward death among the most arrestingly staged moments of part one, and her cool authority as Marcus’ mother allows her to get a laugh on a simple stage direction like “Oba exits.” Muschett’s Oya is both proud and fragile; she’s also touching later as a high-school stunner who fails to notice her main crush is gay.
Landau and O’Hara are backed by an inventive design team. Set designer James Schuette and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, in particular, work magic, using minimal elements to summon multiple locations — past, present, real and dreamed.