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A CurtainUp Review
The Brother Sister Plays
Part 1: Red and Brown Water
Part 2: The Brothers Size and Marcus or the Secret of Sweet
By Elyse Sommer
All three off these plays bear the hallmarks of McCraney's unique blend of lyrical West African story telling and modern African-American venacular that can be in your face one minute and strikingly poetic the next. The plays are also permeated with music and movement.
Though McCraney's stories require no elaborate staging, his style affords directors ample opportunity to create powerful stage images and for the actors to shine in multiple roles — which Tina Landau and Robert O'Hara and the acting ensemble indeed do. Under the umbrella title of The Brother/Sister Plays, the trilogy has been divided into two parts, which can be seen on separate evenings or at one of the weekend marathons. The first and longest, In the Red and Brown Water, gets its own evening as Part 1. The Brothers Size and Marcus: Or the Secret of Sweet are combined for Part 2. While each part can stand on its own, this is indeed a triptych that moves forward chronologically and with actors in the first play reappearing as older versions of themselves or as other characters in the second part.
You'll obviously get more of a full life perspective of the characters who populate McCraney's San Pere housing project with its distinctly bucolic African village flavor, if you see both parts:
In the Red and Brown Waters focuses on Oya ((Kianné Muschett), a young girl who misses an opportunity to be a college track star to stay close to her ailing mother (Heather Alicia Simms), then falls into two doomed relationships with the loving but dull Ogun Size (Marc Damon Johnson) and the sexy but unfaithful Shango (Sterling K. Brown). Her inability to conceive a child and Shango's betrayal lead to a gasp-inducing, unnecessarily sef-destructive operatic finale.
The Brothers Size explores Ogun's relationship with his brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry) who's already been in prison once. The hard-working older brother's efforts to keep his brother out of trouble are sabotaged by Oshoosi's seductive prison buddy Elegba (Andre Holland), who was a trouble-prone teenager in the first play.
The final play, moves things forward with André Holland now playing Marcus, the son Elegba fathered as a teenager in the first play. Though it starts with Shango's funeral and its water images strongly suggests the advent of Katrina, this is basically Marcus's coming out and coming of age story.
Seeing the complete trilogy will also give you a chance to see two different directing styles that connect seamlessly thanks to the the staging, the splendid ensemble acting and the playwright's unifying stylistic elements. Most notable in the latter category are the frequent dream sequences, the melding of poetry and street talk and the device of having the actors speak the stage directions before playing them out. The spoken stage cues not only underline and bold face the characters feelings and actions but fit in with the story telling mode. On the other hand, this device tends to make the audience too aware of seeing a play to be really swept up in the story and, used as extensively as it is, does get a bit tiresome.
As long as I'm quibbling about the intriguing but over used spoken stage directions. . . the non-specific staging and the characters' African names tend to obscure the fact that their stories play out in an American housing project and not a country village in distant Africa. When a reference to the project is actually made it doesn't seem to fit in with what we're seeing and hearing. This is especially true in Tina Laundau's highly stylized staging of In the Red and Brown Water. O'Hara's more naturalistic direction, though also relying on generic props (a table that doubles as a bed and a car) does add a large garage door and some very realistic rain.
Even though the play Ms. Landau directs is wonderfully atmospheric and has an abundance of stunning images, I suppose if you had to choose to see just one part, I'd opt for the second because it features The Brothers Size which is the jewel in this trilogy's crown. Of all the characters, it's Ogun and Oshoosi Size who are the most memorable. As the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis states in his program notes, they join a parade of brothers who have made dramatic history: Jamie and Edmund of Long Day's Journey, Biff and Happy in Death of a Salesman, Booth and Lincoln of Top Dog/Underdog, Austin and Lee of True West.
The ensemble acting is, as already indicated, outstanding throughout. The actors adeptly slip into and individualize multiple roles — for example André Holland segues from a sweets hungry, nervy youngster to a mysterious and dangerous adult with criminal record, and finally a son looking to his dead father for self understanding. Kianné Muschett is endearing both as the initially buoyant and ultimately tragic Oya of part one and as a high school girl who has yet to realize that the boy she has a crush on is gay. The actor who most consistently makes the audience laugh is Kimberly Hébert Gregory, especially as the first play's Aunt Elegna, a woman of a certain age who's not the least bit uncertain about her enthusiasm for a handsome young man.
No review of this ambitious work would be complete without a shoutout for the design team — especially set designer James Schuette's magician-like way with actualizing locations evoked by dreams and real events and doing so with minimal props. His scenic design is greatly enriched by Peter Kaczorowski's lighting wizardry. Schuette and Kaczorowski also backed Tina Landau's direction of McCraney's Wig Out! which had a run at the Vineyard Theater review) and, like The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water, has already had London productions.
Ultimately The Brother/Sister Plays are all about love, loss and familial ties. The actors' humming, sighing, drumming and singing brings out the Yuroban flavor and rhythm of the stories, but the real music in Terrel Alvin McCraney's play comes from the poetic yet super real language his characters speak.