The Brother/Sister Plays Part 1 and 2
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
November 14, 2009
Many theatre people consider Tarell Alvin McCraney a major new voice in the American theater. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of The Public Theater (the springboard for McCraney's success), adds in a program note: "Still astonishingly young at 29, he has already produced a body of work as distinctive as it is intoxicating and powerful."
McCraney's trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays proves that the young writer is a significant artist of ample talent, scope, and expressivity. His main strength is his ability to create uniquely colorful and rich worlds that capture present day social realities while providing a strong mythic foundation, spiced up with dreams and poetry, and wrapped up in compelling storytelling.
In the Red and Brown Water is the story of Oya, a girl/woman of color who's an extremely gifted runner, but she loses the opportunity to go and train at a better school because her mother has a terminal illness. Her potential for a successful career being lost, all that's left to Oya is fulfillment through love, family, and motherhood. Alas, she can't get pregnant with either of the two men who desire her: Ogun, with more careful affection; Shango (the one she loves), with irresistible lust. This archetypal story of the barren woman can be found in various cultures and ancient myths—Greek, Latin, Asian, etc.; in Christian and Muslim fables; and specifically in McCraney's confessed inspirations as he calls his text "A FAST AND LOOSE PLAY on Spanish YERMA and African OYA/OBA."
But, even if Lorca and others have tackled the same old general/human topics, McCraney manages to make the story his own in a very imaginative and touching way, as Oya's tragic journey concludes in a final painful gesture.
Ogun Size, the good man who loves Oya without his feelings being reciprocated, returns as the lead character in The Brothers Size as we learn about his relationship with his younger brother, Oshoosi, an ex-con out of prison on parole. The story has again mythical, biblical, and archetypical undertones while describing the complex emotional lives of two men of color, struggling to maintain their dignity, love, and freedom in hostile circumstances.
The third play, Marcus; or The Secret of the Sweet, focuses on Marcus, the son of Elegba (a supporting character in the other two parts of the trilogy). The action is set in the same place—San Pere, Louisiana—during the weeks before Katrina hit the land. Dreams about water provide a surreal world-defining leitmotiv as Marcus, the sensitive teenager, comes to terms with his homosexuality.
McCraney's trilogy manages to paint a memorable social fresco of intertwined destinies and shattered lives, both mythic/poetic and specific/real. Another thing to remember is McCraney's aesthetic mark of having the actors say the stage directions. The getting out and into the story, the breaking of the fourth wall, creates a unique connection between the performers and the audience. The spectators are fully drown into the narrative as they realize they are not just witnesses of a piece of art that imitates life, but trusted listeners of compelling yet humorous confessions and truthful stories.
And all the actors deserve accolades for such a tour de force, as they nuance their multiple roles in all three plays, alternating main characters with members of the chorus. As for the directors, I must say that Tina Landau's heightened yet minimalist style, the way she uses the space, the props, and the ensemble of performers, emphasizing the poetic/mythic symphony of words, gestures and sounds (In the Red and Brown Water), seemed to me to serve better the text than the more grounded and realistic approach that Robert O'Hara employs in the last two plays.
However, McCraney's dramatic stories are so original and strong that they allow various directorial interpretations without losing their amplitude and appealing power.