Every play’s run blends repetition and novelty: night after night, actors run through well-rehearsed motions and speech in the hopes of thereby awakening something unrepeatable, a shared moment existing only in this room, with this audience. For the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, this ritualistic element speaks to the essence of theater: the ability to awaken a shared experience, and through this experience a communal, life-changing faith in the power of imagination, sets live theater apart from the other arts.
McCraney’s first experience with the transformative capacity of theater came in the church of his grandfather, a Baptist minister. As his grandfather recounted the story of Lazarus, McCraney recalls, “we would all see Lazarus on the ground.” This most basic form of theater created a congregation; speaker and listener came together via the story to honor their own community and the generations of communities before them. The themes encapsulated in McCraney’s anecdote—of imaginative communion, of honoring the dead who came before—deeply inform the work of this gifted 27-year-old artist, imbuing his writing with a simultaneous modesty and ambition that explain in part the excitement it has generated.
That excitement can be quantified: The Brothers Size, a hit at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival last year, opens in the Public’s regular season this month. At about the same time, it will open at London’s Young Vic. Faber and Faber published the play in the UK in early October. Another play in McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy, In the Red and Brown Water, opens this winter in Atlanta. And in the last week of October, McCraney won a $50,000 Whiting Writing Award. It’s a pretty good season for someone who graduated from Yale’s MFA writing program last spring.
Perhaps most impressively, McCraney’s writing bears up under such plaudits. The Brothers Size, a rich mélange of Yoruba tradition, Brookian “holy theater,” and vernacular storytelling, manages at once to seem thoroughly traditional and exploratory. McCraney attributes the inspiration for the story to a snippet of ijala, the Yoruban poetic form dedicated to the orisha, or divinity, Ogun. Just three lines long, the ijala declared that Ogun’s brother Oshoosi wanders. “In the instant I read it,” McCraney says, “I could see my own brother”; that flash of inspiration led him to invent a contemporary explanation for Oshoosi’s enigmatic wandering.
The play retains both the Yoruba names and the traditional traits of its orisha: Ogun, described by Wole Soyinka as a “being of calm, rugged strength,” Elegba the trickster, and caught between them, the mercurial hunter Oshoosi. But in McCraney’s recasting, the metal-forger Ogun runs an auto repair shop in San Pere, Louisiana. Elegba and Oshoosi are recent cellmates, now out on parole. While Ogun pushes his brother anxiously to take a job in his shop and avoid temptation, Elegba slyly insinuates himself back into Oshoosi’s life, reminding him of the dreams of genuine freedom that life outside jail seems constructed mostly to thwart.
Propelled by a plot as spare as a parable, The Brothers Size richly develops the relations of its characters through the fluid instrument of McCraney’s language. The three orisha each exist as tight knots of desire driven necessarily into dramatic collision. The sheer kinetic energy of the play thrills—words, bodies, actions slam into one another—throwing off shards of hard-won illumination. Here’s Oshoosi, for instance, telling Ogun to get off him about his probation:
You can’t fathom that?
You can’t fit that round yo big ass head?
You trying to lock me up again?
You trying to make my feet stuck?
Stuck here in here …
Well you just give me the word Og.
Tell me now like a man you want me to be miserable.
Just tallying up the different moves in Oshoosi’s language could be a study in itself: the resigned punch of “damn,” the register switch from “You can’t fathom that” to “yo big ass head,” the melancholy mantra “stuck here in here.” McCraney has an impressive lyrical range; when Elegba later describes to Ogun how Oshoosi cried for missing him in jail, saying:
He cry out and hell he make us all miss our brothers
The ones we ain’t neva even havethe words palpably ache. But even more impressively, McCraney consistently subordinates his verbal gifts to the play’s dramatic impulse. For all their flash and delicate rhythm, McCraney’s words function foremost as indices to character.
The twin impulses to eclecticism and purification visible in the way he treats his words also show up in McCraney’s attitude toward his theatrical predecessors. On the one hand, The Brothers Size gestures toward a rich pantheon of forebears. By centering the play on Ogun, McCraney invites comparison to Soyinka, who makes reference to the stolid orisha in A Dance in the Forests, as well as in his version of Euripides’ Bacchae. The familial themes and vernacular lyricism bring August Wilson to mind, though the clipped sardonic rhythms of McCraney’s dialogue, to my ear, actually resemble Brecht more closely. And the play’s minimal staging, archetypal subject matter, and spoken stage directions evoke the avant-garde heritage of Peter Brook and Grotowski’s “poor theatre.” At the same time, the impulse behind this allusive panoply seems less one of conscious emulation than one of common enterprise. McCraney repeatedly describes his own aim in the theater as one of stripping away inessential elements in order to eliminate potential barriers between actors and audience. In effect, he is tied to the work of previous writers primarily because he shares their devotion to and faith in the theatrical enterprise.
If that description sounds somewhat dutiful, it’s not surprising that McCraney can write the part of Ogun the workhorse so convincingly. He’s intensely serious and clearly has enormous expectations of himself and of the theater. But, as he himself notes, when his brother was asked after a performance of The Brothers Size about the resemblance to the real McCraney family, he replied, “All of them are like Tarell.” Part trickster, part craftsman, Tarell McCraney has amply demonstrated in his fledgling career the ability to invest his creations with vigor and depth. Unlike Lazarus, the theater can’t be resurrected single-handedly, but one may well hope that McCraney’s work will prove to be an enduring vital sign.
The Brothers Size runs Oct. 23 to Dec. 23 at the Public Theater, 225 Lafayette Ave. Please visit www.publictheater.org for more information.
John Beer has written about theater for The Village Voice and Time Out Chicago.