November 21, 2009

In Love with "The Brother/Sister Plays"

I’m not sure you can call yourself a card-carrying theater lover if you haven’t at least heard of Tarell Alvin McCraney. He’s the wunderkind who won both the exemplary artist award when he attended Miami’s New World School of the Arts High School and the Cole Porter Playwriting Award at the Yale School of Drama; who was named the International Playwright in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company this year and the first recipient of the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award in June; and who can claim as mentors both the late great playwright August Wilson and the great British director Peter Brook. He’s also the creator of the startlingly original The Brother/Sister Plays that opened at The Public Theater this week.

McCraney, who is just 29, mixes classical Greek myths, Yoruba mythology, innercity street culture, 20th century soul music and post-modern sensibilities to create a distinctly 21st century take on the African-American experience. The Brother/Sister Plays is a trilogy of separate but interconnected plays that tell the multigenerational story of people living in a poor largely black Bayou community in Louisiana over the last 30 or so years.  It’s the work of a young man and so it isn’t perfect but it bristles with brilliance.

The plays are divided into two performances that are playing in repertory on alternate evenings or in a marathon on Saturdays.  My friend Jesse, who loves avant garde stuff, and I went to the latter last week and so got to totally immerse ourselves in McCraney’s enthralling world.

The first, and longest of the plays, is In the Red and Brown Water, which centers around a girl named Oya.  (All of the characters have names derived from those of Yoruba deities which makes me wish I had paid more attention in my college comparative religions course.) Oya is a gifted runner who has to choose between a scholarship that will take her away to college and staying at home to care for her ailing mother, and later between two completely different lovers. 

The focus shifts to three men in Oya’s life in the second and most affecting of the plays, The Brothers Size.  And the third, Marcus: or The Secret of Sweet, is a coming-of-age and coming-out story in which the children of people in the earlier plays take center stage.

Nine actors assume multiple roles in the three plays and they are all sensational. Kimberly Hébert Gregory earns the audience’s overt affection as a sassy aunt who pops up in each installment.  But I was most taken with Marc Damon Johnson, who plays the eldest of the Size brothers.  Over the course of the plays he ages from an awkward but optimistic young suitor to the world-weary elder statesman of his community and, without makeup or other artificial devices, he made it seem as though he’s playing his own age each time.  He’s a remarkable actor.

An extra bonus, at least for me, is that the plays are directed by two different people and so you get to see what happens when different approaches interact with McCraney’s idiosyncratic style.  Tina Landau treats In the Red and Brown Water as a fable—the characters, all dressed in white, stay on stage the entire time, serving as a watchful Greek chorus when they’re not speaking. Robert O’Hara gives the other two plays a more naturalistic feel but, particularly in The Brothers Size, still acknowledges their allegorical roots.

Elements of tragedy run through all three but so does a lot of humor. The plays are totally accessible even if you don’t know your Yoruba gods.  Or your theatrical ones.  McCraney, who grew up in a community much like the one in the plays, has said often that he wants to write works that will attract young people and others who don’t think theater is for them.  

It's obvious how deeply he feels about that mission. During a talkback after last Saturday’s matinee performance he recalled performing at a drug rehab center when he was just 14 and how a woman in the audience said the show made her realize for the first time how her drug use had affected her children. Then he broke down as he told the Public audience how he wished something similar had happened for his mother who had been in the same facility a year earlier and who would eventually die from AIDs. (Click here to read about his personal story).

The critics are divided in their opinions of The Brother/Sister Plays. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley found the plays “pumped full of a senses-heightening oxygen that leaves you tingling.”  But the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli accuses them of “self indulgence” and “heavy-handed staginess.” Naysayers like Vincentelli particularly object to McCraney’s theatrical device of having his characters speak their stage directions. “As precious and redundant, naive and obvious as it is, this affectation is an integral part of McCraney's poetic storytelling style. Too bad it often feels like an MFA writing assignment,” complained Vincentelli.  

But I’m a sucker for theatrical stagecraft and I loved this device, even its way of provoking audience participation, something I usually hate.  I admired it even more after hearing McCraney explain during the talkback how he’d derived the technique from the southern style of storytelling, the sermons his grandfather used to give, and a desire to create an experience that “does what the theater does well—keeping you here with me while I’m telling you this story.” 

It’s a story every theater lover should experience and since the run has just been extended through Dec. 20, you can.


Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read the article. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Anonymous, thanks for your kind words. I post every Wednesday and Saturday (and sometimes Twitter in between) so I hope you will become a regular reader and frequent commenter.

dgl said...

Hey, Jan - love reading your take on things and thanks for giving me an excuse NOT to shell out for Finian's. Having seen Blue Hill troupe's Brigadoon and Encore Girl Crazy I am so-so wanting to hear new music and less corn! Can't wait to hear your take on Fela - in the meantime, a shout out to K - whom we LOVED watching play Gershwin at Girl Crazy (one of Peter's favorite scores ever) -

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Deb, is that you? Thanks for commenting. I'm looking forward to the Broadway version of Fela too cause I had a great time when I saw it off-Broadway last year (you can read my review at: and I'm hearing it's even better now. In the meantime, I'm continuing to love Peter's love of all the classics, particularly the obscure ones! For all kinds of reasons, I had to miss Girl Crazy but I'm really glad that some folks from the home team were there to cheer K on for me.