After four years of a dizzying ride to fame and international acclaim, Tarell Alvin McCraney has come home to South Florida.
Sure, the Miami-raised playwright has been home many times to visit family and friends. But just now at GableStage, McCraney is getting a long-overdue artistic homecoming with the regional premiere of The Brothers Size, the play that marked him as a writer to watch when he was still a grad student at the Yale School of Drama.
The middle play in three related dramas of McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays, this deeply moving version of The Brothers Size is (as a homecoming celebration should be) quite special. McCraney is its director, the first time he has staged his breakout work, and he imbues the production with a sense of rhythm, ritual, precision and illumination. His powerful, impressive cast includes Teo Castellanos, the talented actor-director-playwright who introduced a then-teenaged McCraney to what would become this celebrated young artist’s life in the theater.
So too is The Brothers Size something special for GableStage. As artistic director Joseph Adler has pointed out, McCraney’s play is different, not just one more entry on the long list of realistic, gritty dramas that have brought the company so many awards.
This simply-produced play is constantly in motion, both achingly real and highly stylized. The Brothers Size deliberately underscores the make-believe of theater, with the actors occasionally speaking their stage directions ( “Ogun comes from under the car,” for example), then performing the action. With his original and singular voice, McCraney crafts an intense story about the unbreakable bond between brothers, a bond that is equal parts love and despair.
Blending humor and heartbreak, McCraney focuses on two brothers. Ogun Size (played with multifaceted depth by Sheaun McKinney) is the stoic elder brother, a hard-working garage owner bristling over too many years of being his n’er-do-well younger brother’s keeper. His brother Oshoosi (a joyfully charismatic Ryan George), not long out of prison, is looking to restart his life as a free man, though work isn’t high on his to-do list. Serious Ogun and free-spirited Oshoosi clash, inevitably and daily. And when Oshoosi’s friend and fellow ex-con Elegba (a playfully seductive Castellanos) turns up, the tug-of-war over Oshoosi’s future begins in earnest.
The Brothers Size runs just over an hour, but that hour is packed with turmoil, temptation and, yes, true joy. Near the end of the play, as the brothers are facing what looks like Oshoosi’s ruined future, they “escape” by singing Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness, eventually mixing in some Temptations-style dance moves. The moment crystallizes the brothers’ history: so much love, so much loss.
McCraney’s script blends street talk and poetic insight, and his three actors handle the text, the movement and the exquisitely calibrated pace equally well. As Ogun, McKinney becomes the play’s heart and soul, his final tears shared by many who have watched him endure one more family tragedy. George captures Oshoosi’s drive for pleasure and his careless failures. And Castellanos, whose Elegba is inspired by (as are Ogun and Oshoosi) a Yoruban spirit, artfully delivers a siren song of destruction.
One quibble with an otherwise engrossing opening night: McCraney has his actors enter the space with the house lights still up, McKinney pounding out a drumbeat on the bottom of a bucket, Castellanos playing a Tibetan singing bowl. Their little parade is a kind of incantation, establishing style and mood. But then, before the play gets rolling, Adler appears to do the artistic director’s usual preshow speech, a South Florida fixture. The mood just set by the actors, that sense that something special is about to happen, screeches to a halt. If that preshow communing with the audience is vital, flip the entrance and the speech. Let McCraney’s eloquent magic speak for itself.