Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 21
 
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
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Music/Theater

Love, Loss, Family, Coming of Age — Old Stories and New — All Converge in “Brother/Sister” Trilogy at McCarter Berlind

Donald Gilpin

Steeped in Yoruban myth and permeated with West African, African-American and Caribbean culture, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays, offers audiences a powerful brew of moving drama, captivating humor, and exhilarating music, movement and poetry. The world created on the McCarter Berlind stage is contemporary rural Louisiana — sometimes harsh, sometimes light, romantic and lyrical, but it is also a world of dreams and remembrance, of ritual and exploration.

As the three plays unfold — In the Red and Brown Water in one sitting, slightly less than two hours, and The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet in the second two-and-a-half-hour program — the audience experience is one of increasing engagement, increasing involvement in the lives and community of a rich array of inhabitants of San Pere, Louisiana over a period of about twenty years.

The company of nine versatile performers — most playing more than one role, some playing a single character over the time period represented by the three plays — is extraordinary in its tightly choreographed ensemble work and in its individual talents.

The first play is the story of Oya, who “begins the play a girl and ends it a woman.” All the characters, though depicted in colorful realistic contemporary detail, share their names with Yoruban orishas (deities or spirits). Oya is the warrior goddess, the tornado, brought vividly to life by Kianne Muschett. In order to stay with her dying mother she sacrifices a track scholarship at the state university. She struggles in conflict between two men who pursue her, the reliable, down-to-earth Ogun Size (Marc Damon Johnson) and the local heartthrob Shango (Samuel Ray Gates). The romance is intense and beautifully poetic, but Oya finds that she is unable to conceive a child, and, in a community that exalts childbirth, Oya’s life and the tone of the play turn dark.

“The Brother/Sister Plays” will run at Berlind Theatre through June 21. Call 609-258-2787 or visit mccarter.org for further information, show times, and tickets for “In the Red and Brown Water” (Part 1) and “The Brothers Size and Marcus” or “The Secret of Sweet” (Part 2).

The Brothers Size picks up the story of Ogun a number of years later and, in contrast with the rich panoply of Red and Brown Water, focuses in on just Ogun, his younger brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry), and Oshoosi’s friend Elegba (Alano Miller). The dynamic chorus of townspeople — witnesses, ever-present participants in the action of the first play — is absent here. Ogun, his name coming from the Yoruban deity of the hearth, owns a car repair shop. He is the keeper, the builder — careful, tense, practical. Oshoosi, named for the wanderer god, the hunter, has recently been paroled from prison. Impractical, carefree, a dreamer — he resists working and cherishes his freedom, his music. Elegba, named after the Yoruban deity of paths and choices, heightens the conflict in his seductive influences on Oshoosi. These unforgettable brothers, deeply connected and hopelessly at odds, are often funny and playful, sometimes bitter and angry, but always interesting, thoroughly credible, and touching in their struggles to find themselves and live their lives with dignity in the face of adversities.

The third play of the trilogy brings back much of the community, including several characters from the first two plays, and focuses on 16-year-old title character Marcus, son of Elegba (Mr. Miller plays both parts.), and his peers. It is a coming-of-age story, as Marcus explores the meaning of his mysterious dreams, the responsibilities and consequences of his homosexuality (“sweet” here signifying “gay”), and his relationships with his deceased father and with the diverse populace in his contemporary world. Oshoosi, as a manifestation from the world of memory or spirits, figures prominently here, as does Ogun, who has aged with quiet dignity.

Though linked in setting and the continuity of certain characters, the three plays provide three distinctly different experiences for the audience. Individuals will have different preferences. The Brothers Size, the first play of Part Two — both directed by Robert O’Hara, with its cast of only three and its penetrating exploration of the fraternal bond is the most polished and focused of the trilogy. In the Red and Brown Water, which by itself constitutes Part One, directed by Tina Landau, provides a richer panorama, including all nine cast members, some playing more than one role, a chorus dressed in white encircling the stage, constant music (mostly vocal and percussion on pans or buckets) and dance. Influenced by Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s Yerma and drawing on elements of Greek tragedy, In the Red and Brown Water is, in some ways, the most traditional of the three.

Marcus brings new perspectives to the experience with its focus on the adolescent and his homosexuality in the context of a quest for understanding amidst varied interactions with other members of his community. The play, particularly through dreams and soliloquies, digs deeply into the psyche of its struggling protagonist. Marcus is the most loosely structured of the three plays. The rapidly spoken vernacular language and surrealistic style also make it at times difficult to follow the dialogue. Each play stands effectively on its own, comprehensible and complete, but seeing the full trilogy does offer richer perspectives and understandings of these complex, compelling characters and their tangled relationships.

The Brother/Sister Plays deliver an intriguing blend of realism and surrealism. The range of characters, their desires and dreams, and the behaviors they display in pursuing them, are thoroughly believable. The issues of these three plays — coming of age, family, love, loss, and others — include the most essential issues of life, whether in San Pere, Louisiana, Princeton New Jersey, or anywhere else on the planet. But the realistic performances here mix with a distinct stylization in staging and acting.

The actors frequently speak their own stage directions, becoming reflective observers and sharing in the telling of the stories they are acting out. Somewhat akin to the Brechtian alienation style, which attempts to distance the audience in order to make it think (and understand the political message in Brecht’s case), McCraney’s departures from fourth-wall realistic theater engage the audience in the whole process, as performers, acknowledging their roles as actors, reflect with the audience on the continuing events. In the Red and Brown Waters, in its use of entrances and exits through the audience, and Marcus, in its soliloquies spoken to the audience, further bring the viewers into the proceedings. The actors’ sharing out loud the stage directions with the audience is effective in highlighting the humor and self-reflexive ironies of human behavior.

The set, designed by James Schuette with lighting by Jane Cox, is minimalist, displaying mainly a large empty space, in which the performers with their words and actions inspire the audience to imagine the varied interior and exterior locales of Mr. McCraney’s world. Barrels and buckets provide the actors with seats from which to observe the action. A large metallic table is the central piece in The Brothers Size, with a large distressed factory window lowered down as a backdrop for several scenes. In Marcus, various window frames descend to designate different houses, as well as different vantage points from which to see the world. The fluidity of action and imagination in these plays is well served by the minimalism of the scenery.

The energetic, appealing, thoroughly professional and well rehearsed members of the ensemble consistently bring these characters to life and engage the audience. Ms. Muschett, winning protagonist in the first play and a conflicted love interest and friend to Marcus in the third; Mr. Johnson and Mr. Henry, as the fascinating brothers in all three plays; and Mr. Alano as Elegba in the first two plays then his son Marcus in the third; provide a strong core and through line to the production.

The other five performers populate the world of The Brother/Sister Plays with extraordinary life and interest. Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Elegua, aunt to Ogun and Oshoosi and godmother to Oya, is sharp-tongued, worldly-wise (especially in matters romantic and sexual), dynamic, and charged with an energy that belies her age. Mr. Gates, appearing in military garb on his way to and from Iraq in the first play, transforms slightly to become the suave player down from New York City in the third play, in both cases taking advantage of romantic possibilities when he sees them. Nikiya Mathis delivers sharply honed, memorable characterizations as meddlesome teen-aged girls in the first and third plays, and Heather Alicia Simms provides versatile, strong support in a range of mother and daughter roles. Barnaby Carpenter convincingly plays a college athletic recruiter and an irate storekeeper, the only two white roles in the play, and also contributes effectively as a member of the chorus of townspeople.

The Brother/Sister Plays, after closing at McCarter on June 21, will move to the Public Theater in New York. Mr. McCraney, just 28 years old and only two years out of Yale Drama School, has already seen his plays produced in London, Atlanta, Barcelona, Washington, D.C., New York, and Dublin, and he has received numerous accolades along the way. In presenting Mr. McCraney with the first ever New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award for The Brothers Size earlier this month, the selection committee cited “the sheer poetry of the language and the play’s vibrant blend of richly specific contemporary characters with archetypes drawn from West African myth.” That and more are on display at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre in the astonishing, groundbreaking production of The Brother/Sister Plays.

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