Opening the 2014-15 season at Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe is a drama that to date has proved a success on both sides of the Atlantic, and little wonder; it’s a stunning piece of work.
The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney is set in a fictional region of the hot and steamy Louisiana bayou, a backwater area called San Pere, but uses the myths and legends of the Nigerian Yoruba people as a basis from which to tell the story. Even the names of the three characters are based on the Yoruba deities, carefully chosen not so much as a form of colorful decoration for the sake of it, but as an indication to the traits we expect to see in each distinct character.
First there’s Ogun Size (Damon J. Bolling) and Ogun is a hard worker. He runs his own auto repair shop by his home and by all accounts he’s an honest man. Courtesy of Stray Cat’s playbill, we learn in the Director’s Notes that the name Ogun is the god of ironworking; someone who uses metal in their occupation.
Then there’s Ogun’s younger brother, Oshoosi Size (Michael Thompson) the prodigal son who returns home after spending time in prison. Oshoosi needs work, but more importantly, he needs guidance as well as parental care from his older brother before wandering off into more trouble that will presumably lead him back to where he was, in prison. The Director’s Notes tell us that the name Oshoosi is the Yoruba name for the wanderer.
And finally there’s Elegba (DeJean Brown) the bad influence who spent time with the younger Size in prison and now hangs around the auto-repair shop like a dark cloud, tempting his brother back into bad habits while appearing like the friend Oshoosi feels he so desperately needs. The name Elegba is Yoruba for the shape-shifter and trickster.
Running at a breathless ninety minutes without intermission, The Brothers Size possesses the kind of storytelling rhythm associated with West African chants backed by the occasional pulsating, percussive beats of sticks and drums. It’s not technically a musical, but music has a lot to do with its style, culminating in an audience-pleasing moment when the drama and squabbling between the two brothers are set aside in order for the younger brother to perform Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness, backed by an instrumental recording of the song on Oshoosi’s old cassette player. “I was born a choirboy,” Elegba tells Oshoosi regarding the boy’s voice in an earlier scene, “But you’re like a siren.”
Playwright McCraney wrote The Brothers Size as part of a trilogy, though your enjoyment of this section matters little if you’re unfamiliar with the remaining two. The play stands alone and needs no knowledge or support from McCraney’s other works, though having now seen The Brother Size, curiosity has piqued.
Characters have a unique voice. When they enter they give us perspective. “Act one, scene one,” announces Ogun at the beginning of the play. When the older brother makes his entrance, he’ll glance at the audience and state in a characteristic, matter-of-fact manner, “Ogun enters, covered in oil.” When the troublemaking Elegba makes his entrance, his description is more lyrical, more mysterious. “Elegba enters, drifting like the moon,” he states as he slithers on stage. These asides are not simply verbal decoration, stated as though reading stage direction from a script, they add elements to thoughts, feelings and the occasional character insight that ordinarily we might never realize.
Despite the bad boy image Ron May has deservedly earned – something of which this column has written before – as a director he’s now become one of the most consistently interesting talents of valley theatre. In The Brothers Size he’s managed to pull three outstanding performances out of his cast, all of whom add flesh to their characters and a distinct sense of reality to what they’re talking about. When the brothers discuss their confrontational meetings with the local lawman, the image they evoke is so clear you almost expect the unseen character to walk on stage at the end to join his fellow actors and take a bow. Plus, when Oshooi relates to his brother the events of a recent car ride with the troublesome Elegba, the mimed actions are so vivid you find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat as if you’re watching the actual episode of bodily contact played out before you.
Special mention to Eric Beek’s exceptional set which you have a chance to inspect long before the play begins. The stage of Stray Cat’s home theatre has been stripped, replaced by a thoroughly authentic looking backyard area decorated with the kind of artifacts and abandoned pieces of old furniture you would expect to see laying around in such a setting. At the center is a raised, wooden platform upon which all action takes place, surrounded by dirt, weeds and old car and truck tires while a genuine, white, gas-guzzler of an earlier decade squatting permanently on raised blocks pokes its opened hood onto the side of the stage.
Local audiences tend to hand out standing ovations as though they were free samples. The performance this reviewer attended didn’t get one, but if any play presented in the valley this year deserved a standing-o it’s this accomplished and heart wrenching production of The Brothers Size.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for Stray Cat’s official website.
Thanks to John Groseclose for use of his photographs.