The final show of the Yale Cabaret’s 46th season brings it all back home. The play, The Brothers Size, was written by its prize-winning and celebrated author, Tarell Alvin McCraney, while a third-year playwright at YSD, in 2007, and the current production is directed and acted by First Years in the program. The effect is one of demonstrating that the play belongs here, at the Cab. And that’s largely because the three actors in the show—Jonathan Majors, Galen Kane, Julian Elijah Martinez—feel such a strong connection to McCraney’s play. One has the sense that The Brothers Size is a defining text for these actors and they, and director Luke Harlan, do the play all due reverence.
It’s a play of relationships, not only of the two brothers Size—Ogun, the elder (Majors), and Oshoosi (Kane)—and Oshoosi’s former cellmate, Elegba (Martinez), but also of Yoruban gods (Orisha). In the cosmic scheme of things, Ogun and Oshoosi are inseparable brothers, the elder a god of “iron, vehicles, weapons, and war” (according to the playbill by production dramaturg, Taylor Barfield), and the latter a god of hunting. Legba, on the other hand, is that figure common to almost all religions: the trickster, the god of the crossroads, the amorphous figure that has a tendency to mix things up. That’s his role here, too, and one of the interests of the play is how McCraney makes this character—played very seductively by Martinez—both a figure for necessary change but also for danger.
The relation between the brothers is grudging. Majors is very strong in delivering the no-nonsense side of Ogun, who still rides his brother for his two years in prison, and who looks upon him as any boss—Ogun runs a car repair shop—would a feckless, lazy employee. As Oshoosi, Kane has the more difficult role to get across if only because, while we tend to sympathize with the younger brother, we might not trust him either. It helps that Kane gives Oshoosi a true gravitas that makes him seem anything but frivolous and deceitful. Rather than a schemer, he’s a man struggling to figure out what the world might have to offer him. Time inside has given him ambitions that stretch beyond a car shop, even if he might have no idea how to get a start.
Enter Elegba as the kind of character that seems to promise not only an individual worth—praising Oshoosi’s singing voice, for instance—but also the means to shed shackles once and for all. Such freedom takes the shape of, what else, one’s own “ride.” A car to get away in. But in this world—abutting the Gulf of Mexico—“getaway” also means running from the law. Indeed, there’s a great bonding moment among the three men when Elegba characterizes his recent encounter with the local sheriff, a black man who uses his status to condemn just about any other black man he meets. It’s an example of how racism phases into the system to the point that oppression by “the masters” might even extend to one’s own race. In a sense, McCraney is using African archetypes to add dimension to his interrogation of racial stereotypes.
A strength of the latter intention is the music of the play's language and its power as a means of personal expression. All three characters speak in a lyrical manner that owes not a little to August Wilson’s pioneering ability to work everyday speech into a powerful instrument. In McCraney's world, the high and the lowly are on an even playing field and everything is stylized and heightened. The play also boasts a percussion accompaniment by Mike Mills that adds drama and accompanies vigorous set-pieces of movement at strategic moments. Music—specifically Otis Redding’s “(Try a Little) Tenderness”—is used to entertaining effect when the Brothers Size mimic the song like they did as kids. At such times the bond of brothers is strong and it’s that bond that becomes McCraney’s over-riding theme, particularly during Ogun’s aria about his responsibility toward Oshoosi, played with a very affecting sense of assertion, complaint, and pleading by Majors.
The Brothers Size is a play of rich suggestion more than a play of plot. Much of that suggestion comes from the archetypes behind these characters, giving us cause to reflect on their roles in our modern conceptions of ourselves. While these figures are not as familiar in the literary tradition as Greek gods and the like, McCraney makes the case that, for his African-American characters particularly, the brother gods that The Brothers Size recalls have a meaningful ethical dimension.
The play marks a very strong finish for this year’s ambitious Yale Cabaret season, ending not with a whimper, but a bang.
The Brothers Size By Tarell Alvin McCraney Directed by Luke Harlan
Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield; Set: Kevin Klakouski; Lights: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound: Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca; Costumes: Montana Levi Blanco; Projections: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Associate Projections: Elizabeth Mak; Stage Manager: Anita Shastri; Producers: Alyssa Simmons, Melissa Zimmerman
Yale Cabaret April 24-26, 2014