Brooding tale of Brotherhood [by James Wenley]
The Brothers Size is a play that ignites the senses.
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has been burdened with all sorts of praise, the voice of his generation, the savior of American theatre. He grew up in Miami’s deprived Liberty City housing projects, and has worked with such prestigious theatrical institutions as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
What he does isn’t anything new, he uses a potent mix of the language of now – the language of the street, hip hop – to tell a universal story in an engaging way. That this play is receiving plaudits in an Auckland production by Silo Theatre is a testament to that. Good storytelling wins.
On a strictly narrative point A to point B level, the tale is a simple one. It’s about two brothers and what unites and divides them. Oshoosi Size (Pua Magasiva) is the ‘black sheep’, released from prison and taken into the care of head-to-the-ground elder brother Ogun (Jarod Rawiri), who tries to instill the value of hard-work and get him back on the right path. The presence of ex-con Elegba (Te Kohe Tuhaka), who ‘looked after’ Oshoosi while he was in prison, threatens to disturb the Size brotherhood.
Underneath this story are biblical and mythical echoes. McCraney has layered the story with elements of the West African Yorùbán Mythology – Ogun, for example, is the name of the God of Iron, Creativity and Violence, adding deeper metaphoric elements.
We begin in darkness, an effect used in Silo’s Thom Pain for uncomfortable comedic value, here in Brothers Size we are forced to sharpen and listen. We hear children laughing, and the three actors breathing. Slowly, they appear in the light. What follows is breathtaking, and I forget the mundanity of my day. A haunting song ‘the road is rough’ is chanted, while a circle is drawn around the space and back-breaking work is enacted. It recalls the wider history and slave roots of the African-American characters in the play. These are people for who the words ‘nigga’ and ‘coon’ are part of everyday language, claiming these words as a positive position, yet perhaps entrenching the label.
The Brothers Size must have presented director Shane Bosher and his creative team something of a dream project to work on. In the best tradition of Peter Brook’s ‘The Empty Space’ treatise, the action takes place on a bare oil-stained raised stage (the audience surround it on two sides), the only prop a bucket of water that is used to cleanse and wash away dirt (and sin?) through the play. All the rest is imagined through the force of McCraney’s words and the equal force of the three actor’s physicalities.
Vera Thomas’ Lighting Design has to be the most integrated and revelatory that I have seen in a long time. Light from above helps cast a large distinctive circle on the playing space in which most of the action takes place in – at times it seems to present a globe, a prison, the cyclical nature of things, doomed to repeat. A sequence where Elegba visits Oshoosi in his dreams is masterful, with large looming shadows appearing and disappearing on different parts of the Herald Theatre wall. This design very much becomes part of the experience of the play.
Its theatrical cliché now, almost theatrical poison sometimes, but it has to be said that Bosher has gone for a very Brechtian style, and to his credit, renewed it. When done well, and relevant to the play, it works. There is no theatrical ‘realism’ that seeks to fool us that we are watching real life. Right from the incredible opening, we know this is something more. When not ‘onstage’, the actors are still visible in half-darkness, standing or sitting by the walls of the theatre. This becomes especially palpable for Tuhaka’s dangerously compelling Elgeba, who loiters as a dark outside influence on the edges of the stage.
McCraney’s script calls for the very Brechtian device of the actors ‘out of character’ speaking their own stage directions, then enacting them ‘in character’. Sometimes this adds humor – Jarod Rawiri saying he is going to smile, then doing so, or the stage direction “looks at Oshoosi like what the fuck”, other times poignancy – the direction “Ogun sighs, and exits” becomes a running motif, saying much about his character. At all times, it draws attention to the storytelling and a story unfolding, characters perhaps not quite in control of their destinies.. Kim Hill asked McCraney about the device in a recent interview he did with Radio New Zealand. McCraney said the convention of reported speech is an old one, and we were telling stories long before we started acting them out . “That way of creating plays allows the audience to not disengage, to remember that we are here together, in a conversation”. He compares it to watching a magician, and “makes the theatrical moment more invigorating”.
The storytelling and invigorating theatrical experience is heightened again by the Tama Waipara’s live and pre-recorded musical score (which mashes up ‘soul, hip-hop and R&B’). Like a Shakespeare play, Brothers Size switches between verse and prose, the verse here accompanied live by John Ellis who sits at the back of the stage with a drum kit. I found myself watching him often through the play, he’d watch the actors intently and his own body seemed to be feeling the rhythms of the music, and of the story.
Shane Bosher acknowledges the talent of actor Jarod Rawiri as the reason for programming Brothers Size, and it is clear why. He grounds the play, draws our empathy, and skillfully holds much back until a climax where years of resentment are released on his younger brother. Te Kohe Tuhaka is a startling physical presence and very charismatic as Elgeba, though I was distracted by the choice(?) to have his hands perpetually in his back pockets, conveying an awkwardness which belied the drive of the character.
My greatest praise though goes to Pua Magasiva, who has already appeared in two comic roles this year (a vain police officer in Well Hung and the Wolf in Pollyhood in Mumuland) who delivers the performance of the year (thus far) as the troubled Oshoosi Size. Working with Bosher seems to have unleashed his potential as a dramatic actor, and his ability to skip between the shades of light and dark, of young man invincibility, to scared little boy is thrilling to watch.
When put together, the chemistry and shared history between the brothers Size is palpable, and a fleeting moment of joy and acceptance when the Brothers sing ‘try a little tenderness’ karaoke style is a highlight.
Special mention to all three actors for their authentic urban Louisiana accents, which I’ve never heard on a New Zealand stage before.
Deceptively simple, The Brothers Size is one of those great plays that have threads and relevancies that continue to emerge and reveal themselves. The Brothers Size is an affecting, and rousing experience that can only happen in a theatre.