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The Brother/Sister Plays

Tarell Alvin McCraney's trilogy is full of theatrical magic, poetic lyricism, and richly layered characterizations. logo
Marc Damon Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry,
and Andre Holland in The Brothers Size
(© Joan Marcus)
Moments of theatrical magic abound in Tarell Alvin McCraney's trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, now being presented at the Public Theater in two parts, with Part I's In the Red and Brown Water directed by Tina Landau and Part II featuring The Brothers Size and Marcus; Or The Secret of Sweet, helmed by Robert O'Hara. While the directors have different stylistic approaches to McCraney's work, they share an excellent ensemble of actors, most of whom play multiple roles.

The trilogy is set in the fictional city of San Pere, Louisiana during a time the program identifies as "Distant Present," meaning that all three works take place in what seems to be our contemporary era (even if they span several decades), while evoking a mythological timelessness. In addition, McCraney manages to balance a poetic lyricism with richly layered characterizations.

The first piece centers on Oya (Kianne Muschett), a promising track star who enters into relationships with first Shango (the charismatic Sterling K. Brown) and then Ogun Size (Marc Damon Johnson). All three of these characters, and several others throughout the trilogy, share their names with Yoruban gods. McCraney plays with this parallel, sometimes in ironic ways. For example, the goddess Oya is a symbol of fertility, and yet the character in McCraney's play is barren. Landau emphasizes the ritualistic elements of the play in her staging, with stylized movements, striking stage pictures, and choral chants. Gospel music is a featured component, and one of the show's highlights is a soulful rendition of "Down by the Riverside" sung to mark the passing of one of the characters.

O'Hara's direction still includes moments of stylized theatricality, but also feels more grounded in reality than Landau's approach. As The Brothers Size begins, Ogun has taken in his little brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry), who was recently released from prison. He wants his brother to become more responsible, but is worried about the influence of Oshoosi's best friend and fellow ex-con Elegba (Andre Holland). The tensions and bonds between these men are palpably felt under O'Hara's nuanced guidance, and a scene in which the two brothers sing along to a recording of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" is suffused with emotion.

The third play concerns Elegba's son Marcus (also played by Holland), who is trying to find out more about his now deceased father in the hopes that it could explain the both terrifying and erotic dreams he has been having about a mysterious man he sees in a vision of an approaching storm -- one who seems to have a message for the now elderly Ogun Size. The 16-year-old Marcus also has to deal with how his emerging homosexuality affects his relationships to friends and family, particularly once he meets the handsome Shua (played by Brown).

Johnson, who is the only actor to play just one part in all three plays, nevertheless finds different aspects of the character to emphasize in each piece; Ogun seems vulnerable and unsure of himself in the first play, confident and slightly aggressive in the second, and contemplative in the third. Holland also takes a journey with Elegba, who grows from boy to man within In the Red and Brown Water, and emerges as a fully sexual and charismatic presence in The Brothers Size. The actor's work as Marcus in the third play is filled with a playful, yet sweet sincerity. The remaining cast members all do fine work, with standouts including Muschett's Oya, Henry's Oshoosi, Heather Alica Simms' Mama Moja, and Kimberly Hebert Gregory's Aunt Elegua.

The design work is also strong -- particularly that of lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, who impresses from the opening moments of In the Red and Brown Water as a man turns over a physically empty bucket, only to have the light ripple out in a convincing and gorgeous water effect. James Schuette's pared down scenic design includes just enough set pieces to suggest a number of environments, Karen Perry's costuming instantly gives the audience clues as to the personalities of each character, and Lindsay Jones' sound design helps to achieve the mood of a heightened reality.

Although each play is complete in and of itself, there is a definite chronology which makes it useful to see them in order. And to get the full, mesmerizing experience, you really should take in all of them.


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