They are three African-American males at San Pere, Louisiana, near the Bayou. Ogun Henri Size, a mechanic, prides himself for being a responsible adult. Free-spirited younger brother Oshoosi’s back from two years in prison. Now on parole, he’s trying to decide what’s next. Sly Elegba’s also on parole, after two years in the same prison. He claims a bond with Oshoosi greater than any family relation. Ogun feels a threat to his lifelong connection.
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size sets up a tug-of war between Ogun and Elegba. The pattern’s familiar enough: the orderly Ogun and the trickster Elegba suggest good and evil angels pulling Oshoosi in different directions.
But the playwright layers in multiple dimensions, and facile labels don’t apply. The names come from Yoruban deities, to whom people pray for specific wants and needs. Ogun, god of iron, fire, and war, is the patron saint of metalworkers, be they surgeons or mechanics. Oshoosi’s the hunter-wanderer, moving alone, often in the struggle to survive (in some ways his cunning intelligence resembles Homer’s Odysseus). Elegba stands at life’s crossroads. He’s a teacher, often with tough love, since he leads his subjects into temptation. The only way they can survive is to mature.
McCraney sets Brothers in the “distant present” — at once here and now, and in a myth-scape outside of time, or before it began. Although they live in San Pere, the trio reenacts a cosmic event waged by archetypal forces. You can almost see the ancient ghosts hovering above.
The playwright uses a similar technique on a larger scale with In the Red and Brown Water (the first of his Brother/Sister trilogy of plays; Brothers Size is second, and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, third). He also creates the then/now impression by having the actors read the stage directions for their characters.
Boundaries blur in the story itself. How far should responsibility for someone else extend? If your brother is your “keeper,” how does it feel to be kept?
Poor Ogun. In Red and Brown Water, he was deeply in love with Oya, a miraculous athlete. But she found him too ordinary. She fell so hard for Shango, the dashing warrior-womanizer, she broke two hearts: hers and Ogun’s. Possibly as a result, he has pushed his care for his brother to such an extreme that he imprisoned Oshoosi long before the judge banged his gavel.
Elegba wants to set Oshoosi free, but to do what? In the Old Globe production, Antwayn Hooper makes Elegba a near-impossible read — beautifully. In mythical terms, he’s chaos where Ogun is order. But in human terms, Elegba talks the talk about a spiritual bond, but does he mean to walk it? Does he just want to be Oshoosi’s lover or, as his devilish grin suggests, does he have a more sinister intent? Or, deeper down, is he an agent of Chaos Theory, which finds order inside randomness?
Joshua Elijah Reese gives Ogun an iron will, admirable at first, but maybe too much so. Ogun is duty, even to the point of personal sacrifice. He’s like a surveyor, a marker of borders. But as the story proceeds, he too has caged himself.
Okieriete Onaodowan has a tricky task as Oshoosi. Where Ogun is rooted, Oshoosi begins unformed, floating, yet to find his true self. Though he can be “on the cusp of crazy,” he wants to believe that “life can be sweet still.” Performing with an impressive lightness, Onaodowan treads a narrow ridge: crazy on one side; sweet, maybe, on the other. Which way he’ll tilt remains in doubt.
In the Red and Brown Water, at UCSD last November, is an epic dream-fable. The Brothers Size is more a chamber piece. The playwright once again shows a remarkable gift for language, sudden bursts of theatricality, and dramatic intensity. But in Brothers, the visual symbolism — bare stage, flat stones in the center, circle of sand marking inside and “outside” — feels a bit tacked on. And the play has both flashes of brilliance and lulls, when the various elements don’t quite coordinate. The overall effect is mixed: a survey of botherhood’s many sides; and, during the lulls, an oddly cerebral quality.
The actors do excellent work throughout. As does the indefatigable Jonathan Melville Pratt. Along with a nonstop preshow on congas and other drums, he accompanies the 90-minute, intermissionless piece with Cuban-Caribbean percussions.
Program notes suggest that Brothers is more about rhythms than, say, its mythical dimension. Pratt’s work underlines this notion, but the production could highlight it more; the speech patterns in particular, since they at times verge on mere declamation. If each character is a drummer, Ogun’s beat is rock steady, a regular pulse gradually clogged by high blood pressure. Elegba’s is an improvisational jazzy backbeat. He delights in turning a melody on its ear. Both want to impose their rhythm onto Oshoosi. Caught in between, he wants to march to a different drummer and must discover just who that drummer is. ■
The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Tea Alagic; cast: Joshua Elijah Reese, Okieriete Onaodowan, Antwayn Hopper; scenic design, Peter Ksander; costumes, Michelle Hunt Souza; lighting, Gina Scherr; sound, Paul Peterson; original music, Jonathan Melville Pratt
Playing through February 24; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623