Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays was first fully presented as a trilogy in 2009 (each had been workshopped years before), when the playwright was nearing 30. Considering the innovation and skill of the work, as evidenced in Jubilee Theatre’s Texas premiere of the middle play, The Brothers Size, it’s no wonder he’s been touted as a writer to watch. (Not to mention awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant, among other honors.)
This production, directed by Tre Garrett, will be the best show in 2014, and maybe for years to come.
McCraney based these plays — the others are In the Red and Brown Water and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet — on the cosmology of the Yoruba people of West Africa, and was inspired by their storytelling rituals. In The Brothers Size, the three characters are brothers Ogun Size (Rico Romalus Parker), a mechanic, and Oshoosi Size (Seun Soyemi), recently released from prison, and Oshoosi’s friend Elegba (Adam A. Anderson).
Their names correspond with Yoruba deities of an iron worker (Ogun), hunter (Oshoosi) and guardian of the crossroads of life and trickster (Elegba), offering clues to unlocking their characters. In this play, Ogun is the hard worker and voice of diplomacy, Oshoosi is looking for answers and direction in his post-prison life, and Elegba is all too willing to lure Oshoosi down the wrong path. (Ogun is the only character to appear in all three of the plays, which can be produced in any order; Jubilee will stage them in subsequent seasons.)
What’s fascinating about McCraney’s craft is that he doesn’t write traditional stage directions in the script, but rather includes them for the characters to both say and act on, from something as simple as “Ogun enters” to more detailed, like “Oshoosi Size on a lunch break/Drinking a Coke cola/singing a song.” It’s a device that could quickly wear out its welcome, but there’s a marvelous economy in McCraney’s writing; he doesn’t overdo this concept.
It does keep the spirit of Yoruba storytelling; it’s clear that these characters are telling their story, as opposed to someone else telling it — i.e., a director, even though there is one. That’s the big challenge for Garrett, and he navigates it masterfully.
The real payoff is in the language, written in a sort of free verse. Garrett’s cast treats it with a musical and surprisingly natural rhythm. In a stroke of genius, Garrett has added an onstage musician, drummer S-Ankh Rasa, who performs in the opening invocation, at scene breaks and at moments that build with suspense, mystery or surprise.
Garrett also manages the tightest ensemble work I’ve seen at Jubilee, as all three actors groove into the rhythm and language effortlessly, and evoke the essence of their respective namesakes. Anderson maintains an air of mystery, and Soyemi is both cunning and cautious as he searches for ways to survive. Parker, an L.A.-based actor last seen at Jubilee in Topdog/Underdog, is a physical, commanding force whose love for his brother is obvious; he’s a role model with the ability to uncover hints of pathos.
Michael Pettigrew’s set of a weathered wood structure wouldn’t be out of place in the play’s setting of an economically disadvantaged neighborhood in a Louisiana bayou town, or in West Africa. Nikki DeShea Smith’s poetic lighting beautifully complements JuNene K’s choreography and Rasa’s drumbeats. All the design elements work in tandem with the concept of ritual theater, and the performances and McCraney’s text are grounded in the grittiness and realities of life.
It’s altogether stunning.
THE BROTHERS SIZE
Through Oct. 26
Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St., Fort Worth