Stage Door Review 2019

The Brothers Size

May 12, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

May 10-June 1, 2019

“Try a little tenderness” (Otis Redding, 1966)

The Brothers Size, now receiving its Canadian premiere from Soulpepper, is a truly remarkable play. Its gay, Black author, Tarell Alvin McCraney, is probably best know as the writer of the screenplay for the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight (2016). Yet, almost ten years earlier McCraney wrote The Brothers Size whose subject is also the attempt of a young Black man to find his place in the world. What makes the play so unusual is that the space where the action takes place is somewhere between myth and reality. With this play and its two companions in the Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, McCraney has in fact successfully revived the Modernist project of discovering in the lives of ordinary people the workings of eternal prototypes.

The play has a very simple plot. Oshoosi Size (Mazin Elsadig) is out on parole from prison and goes to live with his older brother Ogun (Daren A. Herbert). Ogun offers Oshoosi a job in his car garage helping him as a mechanic, but Oshoosi is a dreamer and working doesn’t fit into his idea of freedom. Freedom for him is driving a car wherever he wants to, not working on cars for a living. 

The tension between the brothers worsens when Elegba (Marcel Stewart), Oshoosi’s friend, cellmate and lover from prison arrives on the scene. Elegba helps Oshoosi recall their intimate times in prison when they were “almost like brothers”. Elegba goes so far as to give Oshoosi a beat-up car that Ogun fixes up for Oshoosi. The question is where Oshoosi’s greater loyalty lies – with his real brother or with his almost brother.

McCraney gives this simple structure added weight and resonance in many ways. Most important perhaps, as is pointed out in Paula Wing’s “Background Notes” is that all three characters are named after gods, or orishas, in Yoruba mythology. The Yoruba dominated central west Africa around the Niger River delta and developed an urban civilization reaching its height in the 12th century AD. The Yoruba were one of the ten main ethnic groups whose members were transported to Latin America and North America during the Atlantic slave trade that ran from the 16th century into the 19th. 

The Yoruba had a highly developed mythology and philosophy based on that mythology. An orisha was a spirit that had taken on human form, equivalent to an avatar of a god in Hindu mythology. Ogun, who is god in the form of a metal-worker known for his strength, becomes a car mechanic in McCraney’s play. Oshoosi, who is god as a hunter and lover of the arts, becomes a man known for his beautiful singing voice who is searching for a goal in life. Otis Reddings’ “Try a Little Tenderness” is his favourite song and one that links him to Ogun. Elegba is the trickster god and psychopomp, very like Hermes in Greek mythology, who combines traits of both good and bad in equal measure and is the god who leads souls to the underworld. McCraney makes his Elegba the one who tempts Oshoosi away from useful labour and encourages him to follow his unrealizable dreams while simultaneously sabotaging their success. 

The Modernist movement sought to reveal the eternal aspects of modern ordinary life by demonstrating how it reiterated forms and stories from ancient (Western) mythology. Thus, in James Joyce’s novels Ulysses (1922) three ordinary people subconsciously repeat the action of Homer’s Odyssey in the course of a single day. Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée (1950) and Marcel Camus’s Orfeu Negro (1959) show modern-day people in France and in Brazil re-enacting the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) retells Aeschylus’ Oresteia as reset during the American Civil War. T.S. Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party (1949) shows the action of Euripides’ Alcestis set in a contemporary drawing room.

McCraney revives this tradition by demonstrating that the three characters of his play participate in their traditional mythic heritage even if they are unaware they are doing so. McCraney thus suggests that the struggle of Ogun and Elegba for control of Oshoosi is not only an event that is happening in contemporary everyday life but an eternal struggle that these three archetypal characters have always been engaged in. 

The characters in traditional Modernist literature and film are unaware of the mythic actions they are repeating. McCraney changes this by having the three performers of his play stage the play as a ritual. The action begins with a ritual invocation and dance and ends with a symbolic recognition of Ayé, the Mother Earth. The scenes of the play are interspersed with song and dance accompanied by Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison playing various modern and traditional African instruments. Dreams of characters are enacted in ways that make them nearly indistinguishable from reality. 

Not only that, but McCraney has written his play in such a way that the stage directions are part of the dialogue. This is a Brechtian alienation device meant to remind the audience that the performer is not the role he is playing but is performing that role. In this play the device takes on an additional meaning. Just as each actor becomes an incarnation of his role, so each of the characters is viewed and an incarnation of an orisha. 

Through these means McCraney creates a play that sits exactly halfway between realism and symbolism. McCraney’s language though filled with expletives and use of the N-word, is at once colloquial as well as heightened through simplicity and repetition to become a form of poetry. 

Director Mumbi Tindyebwa recognizes all this and has asked for a design that reflects the dual nature of the play. Costume designer Rachel Forbes has given all three characters similar outfits of T-shirts and pants, except that Ogun wears mechanic’s overalls. All three are barefoot and all three have their legs, arms, hands and faces painted with tribal markings. Ken MacKenzie’s set, unlike the realistic sets created for other productions of this play, shows us a car whose front end protrudes at an angle from a gravelly plain. It is impossible to say whether the car is emerging from the ground or sinking into it, just as it is impossible to say whether Oshoosi has emerged from one sort of prison only to be trapped in another.

The three actors give gripping performances. Daren A. Herbert is outstanding as Ogun. He shows that beneath Ogun’s consistent hardness towards Oshoosi is a brotherly love he finds difficult to articulate and a sense of duty that makes him weep whenever Oshoosi goes astray.

From the confidence of his performance one would never know that Mazin Elsadig was a late replacement for another actor as Oshoosi. He fully conveys that underlying Oshoosi’s apparent laziness is a dreamer anxious to test himself to find out who he is and what his purpose in life should be. Unlike his two cast mates Elsadig is not as easy to understand partially because he speaks so rapidly and because he tends to lower his voice at the ends of sentences.

Marcel Stewart makes a fine Elegba. Youthful and good-natured Stewart has an immediately attractive personality which makes it easy to see how Elegba could lead someone as weak-willed as Oshoosi into temptation. Yet the fact that Elegba emphasizes the happiness that he and Oshoosi found in prison is a sign that Elegba does not represent the forward progress in life that Oshoosi needs. Symbolically, Oshoosi is caught between the brotherly love Ogun represents and the romantic love Elegba represents.

In Yoruba philosophy every person is enjoined to improve their character in order to find their destiny, the ultimate goal being to achieve oneness with the divine creator Olodumare. The Brothers Size is set in a fictional town of San Pere (i.e. “fatherless”) and Ogun and Oshoosi were abandoned by their father early in life. Ogun feels a sense of fatherhood in caring for Oshoosi, but the question is whether Oshoosi will be able to improve his character and ever feel unity with something higher than himself. Despite all its specific details about life in the American South, McCraney’s play becomes an allegory about the temptations and obligations that beset any human being who has not yet found their place in the world.

The play is filled with humour but at the same time it builds such a feeling of dread that by the end we feel we have witnessed the ritual enactment of a tragedy. The Brothers Size is a play that no lover of theatre should miss.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Daren A. Herbert as Ogun and Mazin Elsadig as Oshoosi; Daren A. Herbert as Ogun, Marcel Stewart as Elegba and Mazin Elsadig as Oshoosi; Mazin Elsadig as Oshoosi and Daren A. Herbert as Ogun. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit soulpepper.ca.