Sometimes a production is so good it reminds you all over again of the power of theatre to demand participation by paying attention and losing yourself in the story. This production of “The Brothers Size,” at 1st Stage in Tysons, does just that. In a tightly choreographed 90 minutes, you fall into these brother’s lives and ache for the choices they’ll have to make.
. . . a play that demands your attention and rewards you with 90 minutes of poetic power.
The talent on that stage is remarkable. Gary-Kayi Fletcher as the older brother Ogun Size, Clayton Pelham, Jr. as the younger brother, Oshoosi Size, and Thony Mena as Oshoosi’s friend Elegba give performances that demand your full presence. They are raw and contained and tough and vulnerable and it’s just breath-taking to come up for air after 90 minutes and realize the world is still turning.
Tarell Alvin McCraney was a student at the Yale School of Drama when he wrote three plays, a triptych, called the “Brother/Sister Plays,” consisting of, in order, “In The Red and Brown Water,” “The Brothers Size,” and “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet.” First produced in 2007, the plays have Yoruba (West African) and Louisiana bayou country influences. They are based on traditional Yoruba stories, which were first brought to America through the slave trade, and later, by Nigerian immigrants. All three of the plays are set in the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana; McCraney draws upon his upbringing in the Louisiana projects near the bayou to meld two traditions.
Ogun and Oshoosi have taken different paths in life. They were raised by an aunt and Ogun was the responsible brother. Oshoosi, who is a charmer, was looked after by his big brother but has just returned from a year and a day in prison. Ogun built his dream of owning an auto repair garage; Oshoosi is wandering and unsure of a future path, except for one thing. He wants to go to Madagascar; he was a voracious reader in prison and found a book in the prison library and it lit his imagination. What he really wants is to see and experience everything. And he wants a car to start the adventure in. He tells his brother he is job-hunting, so his brother challenges him to come work for him.
While at the garage, a friend of his from prison, Elegba (who is now working at a funeral home), comes by. Ogun is suspicious of Oshoosi having a prison friend. Later, Elegba gives Oshoosi a gift of a car; it is out of that gift that trouble comes. Unknown to Oshoosi, when he and Elegba are going for a ride, there is cocaine in the car and the racist sheriff they have all had run-ins with, catches them. From that one bad decision, a whole host of other consequences will follow.
This is a play that was written by a man in his twenties, but it has a power and tautness that belies that. The depth and richness of the brothers’ somewhat fractured relationship are teased out. The staging—in the round with a gravel “drive,” stone surround and a water-filled round pit, is hard and hot and somehow timeless.
This is a very formal show in its presentation and cadence. There is an insistent drum beat throughout much of it, and when the actors first appear on stage, the walk is stylized in patterns, with deep “huhs,” chest thumps and that drumbeat pulling you further into some unknown ritual. The actors also say many of the stage directions—directly and without inflection. This could be hokey, but it works beautifully to underscore the oppressiveness of the past, going all the way back to slave days and through Jim Crow and up to the present, and the narrowing of choices in the future.
These three actors are stunning in their roles. Ogun’s iron control and wariness are in sharp relief against Oshoosi’s openness and yearning for a wider sky. When the brothers let go a little and have an impromptu song and dance to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” you get a sense of other possibilities that might have been, particularly for Ogun. He has a flash of an unguarded moment of delight and then it’s carefully put away. Fletcher gives an incredibly rich portrayal of the older brother within a very tight constraint.
Pelham’s Oshoosi is no fool, however. He is young and wants so much more out of life, and he’s sort of all over the place, but his love for his brother is a saving grace. It’s a nuanced, desperately human performance.
As Elegba, Mena is the most opaque. He is the catalyst that sets the car in gear, so to speak, and his motives are compounded of hurt and love and loathing and desire. He has the quietest performance in many ways, but it reverberates.
“The Brothers Size” is tautly directed by Jose Carrasquillo; there is no wasted motion or stray prop, no unnecessary word or sigh.
This show is elegiac in its approach to language and movement; there is a timelessness in the drumbeat, the chest pounds, the “huhs,” the very way the actors walk, that speaks to the line of ancestors that brought them to this point, and the divergence occurring now. It is a play that demands your attention and rewards you with 90 minutes of poetic power.
Advisory: Adult language.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Information: ‘The Brothers Size’ runs from January 31 – February 24, 2019, at 1st Stage, Tyson, Virginia. For more information, please click here.