Three plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney that have several characters in common, take place mainly among Blacks in Louisiana bayou country and move forward in time are billed as a Trilogy. The Brothers Size, in the center, is built around a significant conflict and is a fine one-act play. The other two are choreographed, and dramatically and aesthetically lit — there are some great effects but one senses the hyper treatment is making up for their weakness as plays. The Brothers Size, presented in a straightforward fashion, carries its own weight. McCraney writes with a fine poeteic realism throughout, and the acting in all three plays is excellent but Marc Damon Johnson as Ogun Size in The Brothers Size is monumental. The names of the characters are drawn from Yoruba gods.
In the Red and Brown Water
The first, In the Red and Brown Water , directed by Tina Landau, focuses on Oya, a young Black woman who’s a talented runner, as we learn in beautifully choreographed and visually patterned scenes. She’s offered an athletic scholarship to the state university but doesn’t want to leave her ailing mother (and it’s annoying and unmotivated that her mother, supposedly very loving and good, doesn’t encourage her daughter to seize the day and live her own life). By the time her mother dies, the University’s second choice in the running slot has “taken seven minutes off her time” and Oya’s opportunity is lost. The rest of the play takes up Oya’s relationship with men — not good, no surprise there. She’s drawn to the dashing Shango who’s not committed to her, and courted by the solid, stolid Ogun Size. This is a place about a young woman who makes poor choices in terms of her own fulfillment in life but we don’t understand anything about her that helps us understand why. In terms of personality, she seems normal enough, well balanced, intelligent. We aren’t given reasons to see her problems as involving racism, or conflicts between the individual and society either, because the world at large doesn’t cause her problems that we witness; what we see is that she’s offered a scholarship by a reasonable recruiter. When she makes the choices she does, it’s annoying rather than tragic. One feels like saying, “get real.”
The Brothers Size
The conflict in this three-character play, directed by Robert O’Hara, is fascinating. Oshoosi Size is the brother who has just returned from prison. Ogun, the older brother, deeply committed to taking care of Oshoosi and looking after his welfare, is trying to keep him on the straight and narrow — getting him up in the early a.m. to work in Ogun’s auto repair shop, for instance. Oshoosi is willing but unsettled — he’s hungry for girls, you’re never sure he’ll stick around, finish the job, stay out of trouble. In the audience, you worry about this almost as much as Ogun does. Oshoosi wants freedom, both from jail and some other freedom having to do with the spirit, that Ogun doesn’t understand but feels as danger. Elegba comes by the shop, a smaller, smiling, ingratiating man, and he procures, shadily, what Oshoosi’s been wanting, a car. He gives it to Oshoosi. This is out of the ordinary, and given the freedom that the car offers, worrisome. The relationships turn out to be more complicated than they seemed at first. Oshoosi and Elegba were friends before prison, and were together in prison, where Elegba was a great comfort to Oshoosi. And now here he is again, tempting Oshoosi to trouble, which occurs and is the crisis of the play. Ultimately, Ogun grows to the situation, and gives Oshoosi what he’s always wanted: freedom, both kinds. Ogun is a great character and Marc Damon Johnson’s portrayal of Ogun’s certainty of purpose, tenderness, fundamental goodness, his breakthrough to a new level of understanding — a new capacity to provide what is needed — is powerful.
The relationship between Oshoosi and Elegba seemed equivocal. Elegba takes Oshoosi by surprise in initiating a sexual seduction, yet they’ve known each other all their lives, including in prison; considering all they’ve been through together, it doesn’t ring true that this dimension of their relationship only arises now.
Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet
The final play, directed by O’Hara, a coming-of-age story of a homosexual boy, is the weakest of the three because there are no strong conflicts. That’s surprising because there sure are plenty of potential conflicts but these are vitiated. As it emerges that Marcus is “sweet,” people are generally bemused but accepting; his girlfriend puts up a little static but they work it out; and he himself, while puzzled by a dream about an older man who appears always in rain, is basically accepting of himself also. In lieu of conflict the play is peppered with colorful “characters” who keep things going but, while fun to watch, they don’t substitute for drama.
Why is this a trilogy? Ogun Size appears in all three plays, but he’s only a powerful character in the second. could be almost anybody in the first and third. Other characters’ names are recognizable in two or three of the plays but, though there’s a genealogy, it doesn’t drive the action. We learn, for example, that Oshooshi has died in the third play but we know nothing of why or how, so while it makes the (watered down) Ogun sad, there’s no dramatic continuity from Oshooshi’s major role in the second play. The Brother/Sister Plays don’t have the driving force of a trilogy.
But there’s a driving force to see The Brothers Size.
The Brother/Sister Plays are at Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through December 13.