Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size celebrates the art of storytelling, even as it spins a compelling tale about the titular two brothers. First seen as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival earlier this year, it makes a return visit to the Public, featuring the same cast under Tea Alagic’s fine direction.
Ogun Size (Gilbert Owuor) is an auto mechanic, who is letting his younger brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry) — recently released from prison — stay with him. Ogun is openly disgusted with his brother’s seeming lack of a work ethic, while Oshoosi, for his part, is content to live by the philosophy, “death killed the lazy last.” Although Ogun hopes to keep his brother out of trouble, that task is complicated by Elegba (Elliot Villar), whom Oshoosi met while in prison. The two former inmates share a close friendship that has homoerotic undertones. And while Elegba now has a respectable job working for a funeral home, he may also be involved in illicit activities that Oshoosi could get dragged into without his knowledge or consent.
As the three actors narrate and perform the play, they also speak aloud the stage directions. This is sometimes done in a humorous manner, and at other times it interrupts a highly emotional scene in a way that keeps the dramatic tension high without giving the story over to melodrama. There are moments when the device feels overused, needlessly causing the pacing to drag. However, it does succeed in focusing the audience’s attention on the way the tale is being told.
Each cast member gets a long monologue which functions as a self-contained story. Ogun talks of an ex-girlfriend whom he lost to his best friend, Elegba speaks of his first impression of Oshoosi in prison, and Oshoosi reveals what actually happened to get him in trouble with the law once again. These speeches are full of richly textured poetic language, and powerfully performed by the individual actors.
Owuor expresses his character’s annoyance easily, but also demonstrates the deep abiding love that Ogun has for his brother. Henry’s Oshoosi presents a confident façade that masks an underlying insecurity. Villar has an edge to his performance that makes him both enigmatic and dangerous. The three play off of each other well, and Alagic’s staging combines song and movement in a manner that meshes seamlessly with the text.
Original music from Vincent Olivieri and onstage musician Jonathan M. Pratt suffuse the play. The bare bones set is effective, although you do have to wonder why two designers — Peter Ksander and Douglas Stein — were needed to come up with it. Costume designer Zane Pihlstrom has kept the actors shirtless, allowing the sweat on their bare torsos to gleam in Burke Brown’s lighting design.
McCraney’s play was inspired by West African myths, and the performance has a ritual-like aspect that suggests that it is trying to encompass more than just the story of these two working-class brothers. Ogun, Oshoosi, and Elegba are also the names of the Yoruban gods of iron, hunting, and mischief, respectively. However, that knowledge isn’t necessary for the enjoyment of the production, which works on its own terms.