Larry Powell & Ronald Kirk in The Brothers Size.
The Brothers Size
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tea Alagić
Review by Eli Keel
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Eli Keel. All rights reserved
The best contemporary theatre steps away from the formulaic and literal progression of plot and place and action. Though plots and character arcs may still exists, or even be straightforward, the best plays show us something that can only exist in the realm of live performance, something that couldn’t be a novel, a You Tube video, a TV show, or a movie. The new theatre must meld disparate elements from thousands of years of theatrical tradition and make something uniquely true, imminently here and now, and unmistakably theatrical.
The production of The Brothers Size now onstage at Actors Theatre is a near perfect example of what contemporary theatre aspires to be.
The disparate ingredients here include movement, drumming, vocal performance, straight up scene work, dreams scenes, monologues, Yoruban mythological archetypes, and the playwright’s choice to have all stage directions spoken aloud. Often actors who are engaging in realistic back and forth switch to highly stylized movement with the sharp tak or thump of a jimbe, and then switch back to lifelike blocking just as quickly.
Even though it is stuffed to the seams with ideas, themes, metatheatricality, and cross-disciplinary staging, the play never feels busy or impressed with itself. The biggest trick the production pulls is the near instant cohesion of these elements. It’s a specific, performative language that the entire audience seemed to naturally speak. Then as soon as we understood the language we were swept into the emotions and struggles of the characters. We laugh and hurt with the brothers and stopped noticing the inventions of style and form.
Director Tea Alagić has staged the play several times now, and her familiarity with the material is surely a huge part of how easily all these big ideas come across.
It probably helps that The Brothers Size tells one of the oldest and most straightforward stories: that of two people who love each other but don’t know how to connect. In this case it’s the titular brothers, Ogun (Che Ayende) and Oshoosi (Larry Powell). Ogun runs a car shop that he keeps successful by working relentlessly. Oshoosi has recently been released from prison, and is far less driven than his older sibling.
Ogun and Oshoosi have a hard enough time reaching out to each other without the interference of Elegba (Ronald Kirk), another ex con who did time with Oshoosi. The addition of a third set of human needs and hopes drives the action.
The small cast is impeccable, giving three completely different yet equally incredible performances. With so few faces on stage we really get a chance to come to know each characters, and connect to them as they so desperately try to connect to each other.
Drummer Ben Williamson, whose ever-present soundscape and accompaniment blends so completely into the action that the audience forgets it is there, rounds out the ensemble. Make no mistake, the playful interchange between words, movements, and percussive sounds works unbelievably well, but like everything that is at work here, we never really notice it working.
The set (by Peter Ksander) is minimal, and the space is often defined by the complicated lighting design (excellent work by Gina Scherr), which is more reminiscent of lighting conventions in modern dance or contemporary ballet – which makes sense, considering how close to dance these movements often veer.
The Brothers Size is a brave and compelling work. It’s not silent on the subject of race, or our prison culture, but the social statements and questions never drew our eyes away from the brothers, which makes any questions resonate even more.
The Brothers Size
January 6 – February 1, 2015
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
[box_light]Eli Keel is a Louisville based playwright, poet, story teller, and freelance journalist. He has been published in Word Hotel, his plays have been produced by Theatre  and Finnigan Productions, and he was invited to read his work at the 2014 Writer’s Block. He is a frequent contributor to Insider Louisville, where he has been given the (informal) title of “Chief of the Bureau of Quirk.”[/box_light]