It is a treat to have a play by a new voice in American theatre and a fully imported production from Syracuse, New York.
The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney, although a stand-alone play, is the centrepiece of his brother-sister triptych that examines a black working-class community in an imaginary town in the bayou country of Louisiana from three perspectives. The Brothers Size is framed by In the Red and Brown Water, which takes the viewpoint of a girl coming of age, and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, of a boy coming out.
Brothers is a love triangle of sorts between three men, two of whom are biological brothers — car mechanic Ogun (Joshua Elijah Reese) and parolee Oshoosi (Rodrick Covington) — and the latter’s prison mate, Elegba (Sam Encarnación), who says of Oshoosi: “We was like brothers.”
The characters’ names are taken from Yoruba cosmology; Ogún, the god of iron and war — hence he works with cars; Oshoosi, the huntsman, a wanderer — here a fun-loving, sleepy young man trying to find himself; and Elegba, owner and opener of doors and roads — in this case an ambiguous ex-con and something of a trickster.
Ogun wants to keep Oshoosi on the straight and narrow. When Elegba pitches up, it is only a question of time before naive Oshoosi is caught up in an inimical system that grinds up the poor.
When I interviewed director Timothy Bond, he seemed to downplay the political dimensions of the production, instead concentrating on how it is about different forms of love. Yet infusing the plot and how the characters respond to their world and each other is the failing system many African-American communities face. Some of these challenges will resonate with local audiences.
The play, to its credit, never preaches, but we are always aware of a hostile world that offers few prospects. We know where Oshoosi is headed, no matter how hard Ogun tries to help his brother.
Oshoosi says of their upbringing: “Hell, the government might as well have put money clips round us and handed us to her [their hateful Aunt Elegua, who appears in Red and Brown Water].” The sheriff who “act like he the only nigga can be seen in town” cannot tell the Size brothers apart and “he treat everybody like we guilty till proven innocent”.
Eventually, Oshoosi has to leave for Mexico to have a life beyond unending spells in prison. According to a programme note, the United States “imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid”.
There they languish, caught up in a multibillion dollar commercial prison industry.
The play starts with one performer drawing a ritual circle of salt-white sand in which they will perform. One immediately thinks of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space. By the end of the play that circle takes on another connotation: cocaine.
Brechtian method meets African storytelling. Stage directions are spoken, for example: “Elegba exits the way he came.” It is a handy technique that makes the play accessible and appeal to a wider audience, bypassing the need for classic suspension of disbelief.
In dream sequences, recollections and other liminal moments, McCraney, influenced by Alvin Ailey, uses slow balletic movement, here choreographed by Patdro Harris. The play shifts seductively in and out of sleep, dreams and memory and sometimes mesmerises with song. The cast members have sweet voices.
Covington and Reese possess tumescent bodybuilder physiques. This contrasts the muscularity of the work with the soft underbelly of the characters. Homoerotic love simmers just beneath the surface.
Bond has managed the ensemble work well, keeping the performance taut and unified.
Covington clearly has funny bones and natural comic timing, but at times his exaggerated infantilised expressions make it hard to locate the character, as if the actor might be playing a child.
McCraney’s script is poetic and deceptively simple. He has been touted as the next August Wilson, a breakout playwright and his mentor at Yale.
What marks him as potentially a great playwright is the way his lines resound with the world. Without any pretentions, they have an echo much bigger than themselves, something not many playwrights seem able to achieve these days.
The Brothers Size is on at the Baxter Flipside in Cape Town until June 9 and at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg from June 14 to July 1. Book at Computicket