If you like your theatre vital, up close and personal, mixing African mythology and tradition with present realities, then you should go and see this play at the Market Theatre. By LESLEY STONES.
This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a play that comes with a 26-page pack of explanatory notes.
It’s a daunting prospect, making you wonder how accessible the show will be if you haven’t read up on the mythology behind the characters, an interpretation of the slang we’ll hear, and a deep analysis of jail conditions for African Americans.
I cast it aside, wanting to see the play as the rest of the audience would – going to the show because it sounds interesting, not because they’re devotees of the Yoruba cosmology upon which the play’s characters are based. Would it prove compelling theatre even to those who don’t know that, in Washington DC, an estimated three out of four young black men can expect to serve time in prison?
The Brothers Size is a rich and mesmerising piece of theatre, presented by three superb actors each so convincing that you wonder if they really are brothers clashing and sparring, playing and parting. The show has been brought to South Africa from the Syracuse Stage in New York, and it’s worth going to see just to wallow in the professionalism of its actors.
Author Tarell Alvin McCraney writes with a rhythmic, lyrical style in the Deep South drawl of the Louisiana bayou. Ogun Size (Joshua Reese) is a hard-working garage mechanic belatedly trying to look after his younger brother, Oshoosi (Rodrick Covington), who has returned home after a spell in prison. On the fringes is Elegba (Sam Encarnación), an old prison mate tempting Oshoosi away from the path of hard work and leading him into temptation. The presence of Elegba almost produces a love triangle as he and Ogun compete to win the mind of Oshoosi.
The characters are named after divinities of the Yoruba culture in West Africa. Ogun is named after the spirit of iron and labour. Oshoosi is the spirit of a wanderer, and Elegba is the spirit of chaos and god of the crossroads, a go-between from this world to the world beyond.
The costumes and music begin with tribalism too, with the trio performing a ritual dance to a driving drumbeat as they lay a vivid circle on the stage that seems to represent the collision of their lives and the ultimate need to step beyond.
You can debate the meaning of the circle and many other aspects of the play for hours afterwards. It’s not a drama to treat lightly, although there were some flippant comments like “forget the meaning, just look at the bodies”. The bodies are indeed worth looking at, but it’s the way they use them that’s most intriguing.
The trio explode in physical theatre that leaves them panting, raging and sometimes almost crying with disappointment at themselves or each other, at life and its tribulations.
Covington is fabulous as Oshoosi, injecting humour and a clownish nature as a façade above the scared and scarred character beneath. He fills his space with lithe, easy movements, and his face is a delightfully changing screen of emotions. Reese is powerful as a tightly wound man frustrated by his unachievable responsibilities, while Encarnación gives Elegba a charmingly wicked glint in the eye - sure to lead anyone astray.
Sound designer Michael Keck has created a backdrop of music and sound effects that beautifully enhance the tension and the mood. Choreography by Patdro Harris is equally impressive, having the characters fill the small space of the theatre right up to the audience, pulling us further into the production by its physical proximity.
It’s very much a masculine piece of work, exploring the rituals of male friendship and brotherhood, with undercurrents of homosexual desire and fear, the sense of duty to each other battling with the need to be independent, the yearning for brotherly support that’s denied by the inability to give it. “When you fall, everybody looks at me like I pushed you,” cries Ogun to his careless younger brother.
We’ve laughed and now we sniff, and then we give a standing ovation. DM
The Brothers Size runs at The Market Theatre until July 1.