Oshoosi (Terrence White, right) is plagued by nightmares, often of Elegba (Ibraheem Farmer), his former prison cellmate. "The Brothers Size" is a 2007 drama and part of "The Brother/Sister Plays," a trilogy by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, an Oscar winner for "Moonlight." (Photos by Casey Gardner)
Review: “Brothers Size” at Actor’s Express is beautiful art, but it’s certainly no escape
Note: The Actor’s Express run of “The Brothers Size” opened March 14 and was postponed the next day due to coronavirus concerns. The company hopes to resume performances in mid-May. Before that decision was made, audiences were limited to 100 people or less. Our critic saw it with about 40 others. We’re publishing our review as a matter of record and respect for the artists involved.
The Brothers Size is part of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy the Brother/Sister Plays, which includes In the Red and Brown Water (Alliance Theatre world premiere, 2008) and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet (Actor’s Express, 2015). McCraney’s drama In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue became the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. All three characters in The Brothers Size are named after Yoruban gods, a through line in McCraney’s work that links Nigerian traditions to roots work and other black Southern traditions.
Siblings Ogun (Aaron Sedrick Goodson) and Oshoosi (Terrance White) are learning how to be in each other’s space again after Oshoosi comes back from two years in prison. What Oshoosi mostly comes back with are nightmares and Elegba (Ibraheem Farmer), his more-than-a-friend cellmate who hangs around Ogun’s body shop much to Ogun’s chagrin. Over the course of 90 minutes we watch these three in a tug of wills as Oshoosi struggles to stay away from the lure of the streets and Ogun decides what he’s willing to do to save him.
Eric J. Little directs this adept cast on a sparse set designed by James V. Ogden. It consists of a reddish-brown peninsula at center stage with Spanish moss hanging above, a pile of rubble beneath a blank billboard (meant to represent the driveway) and a prison watchtower, from which Elegba often enters. Lighting designer Andre C. Allen and sound designer Chris Lane create beautiful moments with washes of magenta light underscored by 1970s and ’80s soul music.
Goodson’s Ogun is a dutiful older brother burdened by his brother’s immaturity and recklessness. Throughout most of the show, he’s a volcano about to explode. When he does, Goodson delivers a helluva payoff.
Oshoosi is playful and loose, but it’s a veneer to avoid having to take control of his life. We see White sweating as he leaps across the stage, constantly in motion. The actor seems so at home in Oshoosi shoes that he almost charms you into believing that his judgments about Elegba are accurate.
As Elegba, Farmer moves like a snake and speaks in innuendo. In the Yoruba tradition, Elegba is the guardian and trickster. Here, he represents the pleasures of the streets but also a place where Oshoosi can be soft and vulnerable.
Little makes the most of his actors’ talents, extending moments in McCraney’s script through repetition and by incorporating West African dance. Near the beginning, the men repeat the words “this road is rough” to the sound of African drums, and then the music and movement progress to gospel and hip-hop. It’s the perfect setup for what lies ahead and recalls what the men have already experienced. The Brothers Size might be Little’s best directorial work to date.
When The Brothers Size premiered in New York in 2007, it was praised for how it addressed black men who’re often cast aside, especially those who have been incarcerated. These same concerns persist today with demands for erasing mandatory minimum sentences and a different path to penitence for nonviolent offenders. Even now, as the world prepares for social distancing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many are asking what happens to those stuffed in prison cells.
Context truly is everything, and as poignant as The Brothers Size still is, at its core it’s good art. And, though many people may not see it, the team at Actor’s Express proves that good art shines even in the darkest times.
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