Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: November 3, 2010
Journal code: SYNT
The authentic voice of black America has taken a long time to appear on the stage. Go back to the beginnings, like Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1958), and you have an urban population who talk like Clifford Odets characters. Certainly August Wilson, arguably the master American dramatist of the last generation, forged a vernacular poetry built from the bricks torn up from the street. At the same time, the rhetorical shadows of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller loom behind him. But no playwright has ever given us characters who sound like those in the works of Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Although McCraney turned 30 only last month, he's been such a shooting star that anyone following news of live theater must have read about him, starting with a gushing portrait by Patrick Healy in The New York Times a year ago. His works, particularly the Brothers/Sisters Trilogy, have been hitting trend-setting venues, like New York City's Public Theatre, Princeton's McCarter, Chicago's Steppenwolf, Dublin's Abbey and London's Young Vic. The most popular of the three plays, Part II, The Brothers Size, has just opened at Ithaca's Kitchen Theatre Company.
Unprecedented as McCraney's dialogue may be, most of black America (Clarence Thomas excepted) will recognize it. The rest of us will recall some antecedents in the concert films of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy as well as the upper end of Def Poetry Jams. Audiences may laugh occasionally, but the intent is not comic. Instead, what we hear is incantatory and rhythmic. Each of the three players in the drama, Ogun (Samuel Smith), Oshoosi (Mack Exilus) and Elegba (Darian Dauchan), are performance artists as much as actors.
Contained in the speeches is much artifice, starting with repeated stage directions, like, "Ogun makes his entrance," winked at the audience, a possible allusion to Bertolt Brecht. Swaying bodily rhythms augment the speeches and move beyond mime to the beginnings of dance. Most appropriately, the program cites Kitchen artistic CEO Rachel Lampert as movement consultant. She supports but never detracts from the red-hot direction from company veteran Jesse Bush.
Norm Johnson's bare set is strewn with automobile tires, and sprigs of drying Spanish moss hang from the rafters. We're in San Pere, near the Louisiana Bayou. Tall, hard-working Ogun Size operates his own auto-repair business. He wears overalls and is often seen with a wrench in his hand. His shorter young brother Oshoosi Size, recently released from prison, evinces none of his brother's work ethic. His fecklessness is intertwined with charm, however, and as responsible adults our sentiments are divided between the one who gets things done and the one who's more fun.
Joining them later is the insinuating Elegba, who moves with decidedly different body language. The interloper had been Oshoosi's cellmate in prison, and comforted him in ways the young man does not wish to think about. Playwright McCraney is self-identified as gay, and he has constructed a play outside the trilogy, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, on gay themes, but that's not the issue here. Instead, Oshoosi insists that he needs to hook up with a woman, acted out when he jumps up on a tire and simulates intercourse.
Now, about those names: Not many of us have encountered American-born men named Ogun, Oshoosi or Elegba. Playwright McCraney gives us a nod toward an explanation when Oshoosi tells us of reading a magazine about Madagascar in which the native tribesmen look just like him.
In interviews McCraney has been more forthcoming. He says he recalls hearing tales of Yoruba (from Nigeria, not Madagascar) mythology when he was growing up in the public housing of Liberty City in Miami. Much of the genetic heritage of black Americans does indeed descend from western Africa. Most audience members will not arrive with Yoruba allusions in mind, and so some helpful notes in the program show the way.
Ogun is the deity or orisha of war and iron, and thus here an ironworker with a sense of drive. Oshoosi represents the hunter, tracker and (uh-oh) wanderer; you can't keep him down. And Elegba, a messenger of the gods, is the deity of crossroads, a shape-shifter and a trickster, attributes usually blended together in a single persona in many mythologies. Other names alluded to in The Brothers Size who appear in other parts of the trilogy are similarly glossed.
One of the most uncanny things about mythology is that the archetypal figures of one mythology bear a discernible relationship with certain other figures from any mythology. So even if you miss the notes, there is something immediately recognizable about each of the three men. Further, there is an unbreakable bond between the brothers no matter how self-destructive Oshoosi behaves. In these post-Freudian days we expect sibling rivalry to be a given. Not so here. At the same time mythological figures retain their identities no matter what is visited upon them. The deities in, say, The Iliad, are the same at the end as they were in the beginning. The Brothers Size offers conflict and rising action, but not transformation.
That leaves McCraney plenty of room to give us the unexpected. While we know that Oshoosi, with or without malign temptation, is a weak vessel who is likely to backslide and screw up again and return to the slammer, he begins to sing the old standard, "Try a Little Tenderness," with the Otis Redding soulful intonations. This is the breath-stopping climax of the action, a moment we can embrace mostly because we had only subtle hints that it could happen. From this moment the actual denouement is something of a letdown.
As the wastrel-to-be Oshoosi, Mack Exilus is having the most fun, but Darian Dauchan (seen at Syracuse Stage in The Bomb-itty of Errors) quickly dominates when Elegba's sinister bony hands interfere. The drama would have been impossible, however, without Samuel Smith's powers to make Ogun's decency, patience and grief such compelling emotions
Still bold, intimate and engaging in its fancy, new 99-seat digs, the Kitchen Theatre Company is the only troupe with the will and the moxie to bring us one of the most acclaimed but rare stage works of the last two years.