Gods on earth: ‘The Brothers Size’ review

(Writer enters)

In the Yoruba pantheon of gods, two primordial orisha stand out, a pair believed to be brothers. Ogun, the god of iron and labour, and Oshoosi, the god of hunting and wealth. It is said that Ogun is the first orisha to enter the Earth, clearing the path for others to follow.

When the people of West Africa were plucked out of their land to be enslaved in the Americas, one can only assume that they took with them their gods. And now centuries later, one of the most mordant of contemporary dramatists, Oscar Award-winning writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, has mortalised these gods and placed them in the heart of Louisiana, the world’s prison capital. (writer hints at irony)

In his plot, McCraney mortalised yet another god, the divine messenger, trickster god of chance, Elegba. We meet these mortal gods, now embodied by an astounding actorly trio in the phenomenal Market Theatre staging of McCraney’s The Brothers Size

(Writer recalls play)

We enter a Mannie Manim theatre with a minimalist stage design by Nadya Cohen and lighting by Simon King: a pile of tyres heaped against the wall on one end, a black bucket in the center, and a small blue bench on the other end. Once settled, the stage blacks out and a moment later light falls on three actors on the stage and an invocation rises. 

McCraney has written stage directions as dialogue, spoken and played by the characters, thus the invocation is the characters introducing themselves and their roles in a Gil Scott-Heronesque cadence: Ogun Size (Nhlakanipho Manqele) “stands in the early morning with a shovel in his hand. He begins his work on the driveway, huh!”. Oshoosi Size (Katlego Chale) “is in his bed sleeping, he stirs, dreaming, a very bad dream, mmm…”. Elegba (Marlo Minnaar) “enters, drifting, like the moon. Singing a song.”

On the surface, this is a play about a complex relationship between two brothers and a friend: Ogun Size, an auto-repair shop owner who has chosen for himself an earnest living. He is the maternal older brother of a former convict on parole, Oshoosi, a selfish and reckless young man who simply just wants his big brother to build him a car so he can pick up a girl. Rounding off the trio is Elegba, also a former convict, prison mate and best friend of Osoosi, who is also intimately in love with his friend. 

(Writer delves in deeper)

When we raise the unveiling cloth, we find a car. McCraney introduces this car from the first to the very last scene. Oshoosi wants his brother to build him a car. Ogun is an auto mechanic, who spends much of his time “under the car”. Elegba steals for Oshoosi a car. Ogun fixes for Oshoosi his truck. When in collision with the law, Oshoosi steers the risk of a life back in prison. Ogun hands Oshoosi the keys to his truck. To Oshoosi, Ogun revs, “if it act up on you, if it start bucking don’t stop, don’t stop, hit it and call my name. The truck know me, it will carry you on.” It is this car, this here freedom, that is McCraney’s conceit.  

The Size brothers in feud, Ogun and Oshoosi played by Nhlakanipho Manqele and Katlego Chale. (Photo: Lungelo Mbulwana)

Beneath the bonnet, we meet the relationship of the brothers with their Aunt Elegua, a cog in the engine to the why, to the dynamic of this insalubrious relationship. There is furthermore the phantom character of “The Law”, an irascible black police officer that represents the relationship that black men around the world have with law enforcement. It is this complex vehicle that only an ensemble of world class caliber can drive home.

The character of Ogun has multiple facets, an admirable one being how he at times attempts to josh the somewhat exhausted conventions of the role of brotherhood, despite his brother’s ebullient nonchalance. Albeit yielding disconcerting consequences. Manqele tackles this role with upended mastery; in a burly anarchic performance, he skilfully brings out the complexities of the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the “brother’s keeper” with crowing commitment.

Chale dexterously maneuvers absurdity in the guise of logic, and anguish in the guise of entitlement. His depiction of the languished yet posturing, caustic yet comic Oshoosi is heartbreaking and haunting, one cannot shake off his writhing and guttural cries during his nightmares. That disturbing display is only matched by the pure emotion of his efflux of frisson when Elegba hands him the car keys. A cathartic and captivating performance of a god who has lost his spirit. 

Marlo Minnaar’s central, sonorous performance of an inveigling, louche Elegba, is a shadow cast upon the Size family, always lurking. Minnaar saunters, almost slithering around the stage, courting his prey. It’s only when the attack is too great that his Elegba descends into madness. His delivery makes you lean in and listen, lending him all the more control of the action. He doesn’t need to shout to make his Elegba powerful; all he needs is you to watch him, which you can not help but do. 

At startling but comprehensible ease, the trio swerve back and forth from rhythmic meter to anti-syntactical, arrhythmic lines in this cautionary tale, each bearing vulnerabilities in roles that require sharp changes of tone and seamless banter. The accent work in the production, coached by Yewande James, is so exceptional that some audience members who had not read the programme were in utter disbelief that this is not an American cast. 

Directed by Market Theatre artistic director, James Ngcobo, as part of a celebration of Black History Month and choreographed by Lulu Mlangeni, The Brothers Size is a tale of displaced deities finding their freedom, and mode of traveling together in it. (Writer exits)

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