Studio's Powerful 'Brothers'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

When it's time to say goodbye to "The Brothers Size" and the array of harsh and soft truths it so skillfully reveals, chances are you won't be ready for it. After the final words are spoken in the Studio Theatre presentation of this arrestingly theatrical new play, a faint sigh rises from some corners of the room. The sound, it seems, of sweet sorrow.

Parting is a little wrenching because the dazzling, emergent dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney has succeeded, in 90 minutes, in creating the beguiling illusion that we are gazing directly into the hearts of a pair of life-hardened brothers -- outwardly rugged and yet inwardly breakable. The compact with the audience is such that one is made to feel for these young men like something akin to a surrogate parent. If only we had the opportunity, we would open above them an umbrella of affirmation.

"The Brothers Size" is in a larger sense about a never-expiring responsibility we all have to one another and, at the same time, about the limits of what anyone -- even a brother -- can do to help. Electrifyingly staged by Tea Alagic and played to the charismatic hilt by a trio of young actors -- the third one portrays a snake-in-the-grass who tempts the weaker of the brothers -- the production gives McCraney's script the fevered energy of something ardent and young and fresh.

"Young" because the playwright, a recent graduate (like the entire cast) of the Yale School of Drama, is testing his powers, and his formidable imagination might have, at this early stage, a tendency to become overattentive to style. While the play is set in Louisiana near bayou country (in the script, McCraney describes the time as being the "distant present"), the characters' names are taken from the mythology of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

As the play's dramaturge, Danielle Mages Amato, explains in the program notes, each name corresponds to a Yoruban deity. It so happens, for example, that Elegba (Elliot Villar), the seducer, is named after a god renowned as a trickster. Ogun (Gilbert Owuor), the sturdier Size brother, takes his name from a god of iron, and his wayward younger brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry) shares an identity with a deity known as a wanderer.

If that construct seems too distractingly like a page from Indigenous Cultures 101, well, so be it. (As a further alienating device, the characters narrate their own stage directions, as in: "Ogun enters, covered in oil.") The playwright's methods do allow us to envision his characters existing in the here and now, as well as in the realm of fable. And so they manage to live among us and to belong to another time -- maybe, that distant present.

The play is loosely the story of the brothers' efforts to get by after Oshoosi's release from prison for some undisclosed but presumably minor crime. Ogun, a car mechanic, desperately tries to prevent the impressionable Oshoosi from falling under the influence of Elegba, an ex-con who met Oshoosi in prison and comes knocking with reefer and stolen goods. What's at stake is Oshoosi's survival; in his prison stint, Elegba remembers, Oshoosi cried out for his brother in the night with such pitiable mournfulness that even the criminals were moved. And now looming menacingly in the background is an unseen local lawman only too happy to return a parolee to jail for any infraction.

The humor and lyrical dynamism of McCraney's dialogue are interpreted powerfully for the stage by director Alagic, whose production comes to Studio for a month after a run at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York. The playing area of Studio's Mead Theatre is all but bare, except for a circle of sand and a pile of white stones. The actors, emphatically, have the floor. In a far corner sits a percussionist, Shaun Kelly, who rings bells and chimes and pounds out the beat on a pair of drums; the room itself seems to have a pulse.

The simple sound effects and stark lighting -- tubes of hot white light form a square above the stage -- sharpen our concentration on three intense, shirtless actors who compel us to believe that Ogun's struggle to protect his brother is anything but a matter of small consequence.

That Ogun and Oshoosi live so frightfully on the edge reminds us that even in the heyday of an Obama, there can be high fences around the aspirations of African American men. The actors, too, appear to be vibrantly in touch with what these characters can and cannot expect to achieve.

As Ogun, the astonishing Owuor heartbreakingly embodies the burden that this young man assumes in attempting to be his brother's keeper. By degree, McCraney peels back the layers of Ogun's painful history, a process by which Owuor reveals to us Ogun's own vulnerability.

Villar's physical elegance makes him an ideal vessel for the vices with which Elegba entices Oshoosi. (In a dream sequence, he engages in a tug of war with Ogun over Oshoosi, a scene wonderfully echoed late in the play, when Ogun has to try to distract Oshoosi from Elegba with, of all things, a funny rendition of "Try a Little Tenderness.") And Henry shows us Oshoosi as endearingly complex, a man-child too easily led.

As with its presentation 2 1/2 years ago of Rolin Jones's marvelously offbeat "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow," Studio performs a vital service here, showcasing the work of an exciting new voice. It's one you will want to hear from again, and soon.

The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Tea Alagic. Set, Peter Ksander; lighting, Burke Brown; costumes, Zane Philstrom; composer, Jonathan Melville Pratt. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 10 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

© 2008 The Washington Post Company