Before Tarell Alvin McCraney was an Oscar winner, MacArthur Genius Fellow, or chair of Yale’s playwriting program, he was a student at DePaul University’s Theater School. There he wrote The size of the brothers, based on a two-line Yoruba poem about a man whose brother has gone missing, so he builds the tools to find him. This deceptively simple premise is brought to life in the American Players Theater’s production of the play in the Touchstone indoor space (until October 8). Under the passionate direction of APT main company member Gavin Lawrence, the extraordinary cast uses poetry, music and movement to explore imprisonment, poverty, centuries of conflict and oppression, family relationships and how far a sibling will go to find and protect their sibling.
The play begins before the lights go out when Le Griot (Jamaque Newberry), an African storyteller, enters the space. With a wondering face, he gazes at the flexible metal ensemble that has no walls, but often resembles a rust-stained cage (stage design by Lawrence E. Moten III) Eventually, the Griot heads for the corner filled with musical instruments that will help her tell her story – including chimes, a turntable, drums and even bottle caps. For a moment, he wonders which story to choose. Reverent, as if handling a holy relic, he gently raises a shovel skyward and then sets it down, the blade facing the audience. He chose the one we need to hear, feel and understand. As the story unfolds, it is told by the characters, who often speak directly to the audience to reinforce that the performance is part of the parable.
Then Le Griot summons three players who embody the Yoruba spirits Ogun (god of metal and fire), his younger brother Oshoosi (divine hunter, associated with the human struggle for survival), and Elegba (the guardian of the crossroads of life, also a mischievous spirit that brings chaos while trying to teach humans a lesson). Bare-chested, the men take the stage and perform a percussive dance step as a rhythmic invocation. Powerful and resonant, it is reminiscent of work songs, hymns and the call-and-response cadence of soldiers running in training. The alternate lyrics are a basic truth for these three black men in America: “The road is rough.”
When they assume their characters, we first meet the serious and pragmatic Ogun Size (Rasell Holt), who fixes cars during the day in a small garage he owns. At night, he is tormented by dreams about the fate and future of his younger brother. Oshoosi Size (Derrick Moore) has just been released from prison and is staying with Ogun as he tries to find his way on the outside. His dreams, remembering his incarceration, are also so disturbed that he has little rest.
Oshoosi’s former cellmate Elegba (Nathan Barlow) tries to steer his friend away from Ogun’s serious early morning lifestyle and hard work toward an easier life of endless time off, willing women and dreamy nights on the Louisiana Bayou. As Ogun and Elegba fight for Oshoosi’s attention and allegiance, the three explode in anger, resentment, jealousy, and frustration. They also tell painful stories of the past that inform the present, of lost loves, comically corrupt cops, abandonment, and a system stacked against them from the start. It seems significant that the only time Oshoosi can imagine an optimistic future for himself – education, a good job, travel, a free life – is when he’s in a chemically altered state.
Interstitial scenes are flooded with red (lighting designed by Michael A. Peterson) and a constant beat, reminiscent of the opening. Sometimes it feels like a race, other times like heavy breathing or men desperately trying to outrun danger. Each iteration becomes more insistent, more urgent, more frantic. This visceral sound design by Josh Schmidt embodies Lawrence’s director’s note: “Every day we live with the fear of being murdered or locked up for driving in Black, walking in Black, sitting in Black, standing in Black, talking in Black, run in Black and yes, breathe in Black.
As an Ogun, Holt is clear-eyed, physically imposing, and filled with seething rage. It channels Ogun’s desperation to protect Oshoosi — from a broken justice system, his opportunistic friend, and his own lack of foresight — into harsh ultimatums and the unapologetic harsh talk of a parent rather than a brother. Although their arguments far exceed the number of laugh-lit scenes, beneath every line is Ogun’s total love for his brother which is fully demonstrated in the final scene of the play.
Moore’s little Oshoosi is restless and always on the move. He moans like a proper younger brother and vacillates between teenage rebellion and seeking Ogun’s approval. In Moore’s portrayal, Oshoosi’s swagger is a thin veneer covering both the gullibility of inexperience and the vulnerability of an innocent.
By contrast, Nathan Barlow’s Elegba enters the scene with a sly smile, a head full of impure thoughts and the smoothness of a professional trickster, “drift like the moon”. Confident, suave and relaxed, he is a smooth talker who tries to wedge himself between the brothers. Elegba even “finds” a car, so Oshoosi can get out of Ogun’s watchful eye. Like an experienced predator, it bides its time by luring its unsuspecting prey into a trap.
As the play heads into a poignant moment of understanding between the brothers, the subtle genius of the set and the lighting design work together to deliver an extra punch to the characters and the audience. Pillars of light behind the metal frame of the house reveal the high walls of another prison that surrounds them. But instead of deterring the Size brothers, it strengthens their determination to be free.
With this heartbreaking production, APT has once again exemplified how to expand its classic canon with an important and gripping contemporary story of epic struggle and profound love and loss.