Powerhouse cast delivers deeply moving and timely ‘The Brothers Size’
Combined with a trio of powerfully layered performances “The Brothers Size” offers the kind of intro to theater that could make lifelong converts.
Nearly a decade ago, Steppenwolf Theatre Company introduced Chicago to Tarell Alvin McCraney’s writing with “The Brother/Sister Plays,” his trilogy of interconnected pieces about black life on the Louisiana Gulf Coast in “the distant present.”
Now the company is revisiting the middle piece of that triptych, “The Brothers Size,” as a standalone production in the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series (meaning most of its performances are weekday matinees performed for Chicago Public Schools students, though there are public performances scheduled over weekends).
Much has changed for McCraney in the intervening years. The teenagers being bused to Steppenwolf to attend “The Brothers Size” now may know his name as an Academy Award winner (for 2016’s “Moonlight,” which he and director Barry Jenkins adapted from McCraney’s unproduced screenplay “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”). Or they may be watching “David Makes Man,” McCraney’s coming-of-age television series that debuted on the Oprah Winfrey Network this summer.
When: Through Oct. 19
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Hasted St.
Run time: 1 hour 20 minutes, with no intermission
It’s somewhat less likely that the teens will know McCraney also scored a Tony Award nomination this year for his first Broadway production, the boarding-school drama “Choir Boy.” Probably fewer still track the awarding of the MacArthur Foundation’s $625,000 “genius” grants (McCraney was among the 2013 class of MacArthur Fellows, as they’re officially known); perhaps a handful saw McCraney’s return to the stage as an actor for the first time in 15 years in this summer’s “Ms. Blakk for President,” a slice of Chicago queer history that he co-authored with director Tina Landau.
And yet — if I remember anything about the volatile state known as being a teenager — many of the high schoolers making field trips to Steppenwolf this month will recognize the feeling of not being sure you know where you belong. They’ll understand the sense of not being behind the steering wheel of your own life — or worse, the impression that unseen forces have already determined the course of your life without asking you for any input.
Some will almost certainly relate to the idea that certain members of our American society are in the crosshairs of the carceral system well before they’ve even thought about criminal actions, while others are privileged with leniency and the benefit of the doubt.
All of these concepts come into play in the swift 80-minute running time of “The Brothers Size.” The siblings in question are Ogun (Manny Buckley), a compulsively responsible auto mechanic, and his younger brother Oshoosi (Patrick Agada), recently released on parole and feeling the weight of his older brother’s oversight. The play’s third character is Elegba (Rashaad Hall), Oshoosi’s best friend in prison who’s also newly out on parole. (The characters’ names, along with the broad strokes of their personas, are borrowed from figures in West African Yoruba mythology.)
Ogun instinctively distrusts Elegba, as a remnant of Oshoosi’s former incarceration. But we also learn that Ogun never visited his brother in jail, so his aversion to Elegba could also be a manifestation of his own guilty conscience.
Guilt, as a mood if not a verdict, hangs heavy over all three characters. We’re never told of the charges that put Oshoosi behind bars in the first place, but he’s eager to leave them behind, and resents his older brother for constantly reminding him of his prior situation: “I been home but two, three months. In that time I swear you ain’t let me forget once that I, at one time, was not free.”
Ogun, in a devastating late exchange, reveals the pressure he felt from their extended family and community for every misstep Oshoosi made — as if he were literally responsible for his brother’s transgressions. And Elegba, who never seems to believe he deserves to be back in the free world, is fast at work to reverse course for himself and Oshoosi, too.
McCraney has his characters speak aloud what might be unspoken stage directions in another script. They switch seamlessly between third and first person, as Oshoosi does here: “Oshoosi at the shop! Standing breathing hard from the walk. Stares at his brother… You left me.”
This device feels borrowed from the distancing toolbox of Brecht, but in the hands of McCraney and director Monty Cole, it somehow brings us in closer — it’s a powerful bridge for audience members who might not have been initiated into all of this art form’s secret handshakes, and thus a reminder to the rest of us that we didn’t always know the secrets, either.
Combined with a trio of powerfully layered performances — led by up-and-comer Agada, who gets the most sweeping arc here — “The Brothers Size” offers the kind of intro to theater that could make lifelong converts.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.