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By Michael E. Miller
From Cain and Abel to the dudes from Oasis, brothers have a long history of fighting and generally acting like pricks with one another. Sometimes it's jealousy. Other times it's because they simply have nothing in common. In The Brothers Size, which opens this week at GableStage, two male siblings living in the Louisiana bayou find themselves at odds for their very souls.
Written by local-boy-made-awesome Tarell Alvin McCraney, the play is part exegesis of destiny, part absorbing African mythology, and all riveting drama. "I was born out of deep rhythms I kept hearing," McCraney tells New Times. "And a summation of a really good education in African-American religion and history."
Though many high school graduates mooch off their parents and take a year off to "find themselves" (i.e., skateboarding in mall parking lots and partaking in 14-hour PlayStation marathons), McCraney spent time listening to his soul and honing in on his African-American religion studies.
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The New World School of the Arts grad wrote The Brothers Size a year before attending the Yale School of Drama, taking a year off between DePaul University and grad school, and working different productions between Chicago and Miami. McCraney was compelled to tell the tale of the Size brothers to meet two desires: (1) to perform alongside his African-American colleagues and (2) to provide material that would, as he puts it, "showcase our young black selves."
The play focuses on two African-American brothers, Ogun and Oshoosi Size. Ogun is grounded, running his own business and looking to flee hardship through hard work, while ex-con Oshoosi is a wandering cat constantly looking for escape from reality. The differences cause a brouhaha between the two. And when an old buddy who was in jail with Oshoosi shows up, the situation escalates.
The Brothers Size, which eventually grew into McCraney's ambitious Brother/Sister trilogy, saw its first production at Yale as McCraney's second-year thesis project. From there it was performed at New York's annual Under the Radar festival and then moved to London's Young Vic Theatre. And now, not only will McCraney's hometown finally get to see the production, but also it marks the first time he directs one of his own plays.
"Tarell is unique on so many levels," says GableStage's producing artistic director, Joseph Adler. "He has an original voice and a very special vision. His work is undeniably different — and stylistically it's unlike anything we've produced before."
That original and stylistic vision is meticulously steeped in Yoruba mythology, a southwest Nigerian religion that holds to a philosophy that basically says all humans are intertwined in each other's fate, like some sort of cosmic Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
The myth that McCraney's story plays on is two brother-warrior deities from Yoruba named Oshoosi and Ogun. (Coincidence? No!) "It is described that Oshoosi is the wandering spirit akin to Saint Christopher," McCraney explains. "Ogun is his brother, the maker of weapons and builder of bridges. It is said sometimes Oshoosi wanders and gets lost, and Ogun must build tools to find his brother. I read that and thought what an incredible story in two lines."
Some observers might see McCraney's erudite approach as overdone or pretentious. But they need to get a damn grip. The breadth of his characters showcases a man who, at the core of his playwriting self, is deep, reflective, resolute, and eager to tell a richly diverse kick-in-your-pants story. The Brothers Size deals with very real archetypical themes such as brotherly ties, freedom, and desire.
"Audiences who know nothing of [the Yoruba] tradition or its many permutations in the New World — Santería, Lukumi, vodou, Candomblé — won't need to bring a Wikipedia or Google search," McCraney assures. "The play was heavily inspired by these ancient stories, but at the end of the day, it is set in the present, dealing with two brothers: one who has just gotten out of prison and the other who feels like he's been locked down his whole life."
As for presenting the play to the city where he found his theatrical calling, McCraney remains somewhat incredulous. "Miami has given me an incredible theatrical vocabulary," he says. "But I bet most audiences here won't recognize my work as authentic, original 305. We'll see. I like to be wrong."
Oh, we think you will be, Tarell. We think you will be.