Dave Rabjohn, Associate Toronto Critic
A compelling drama, The Brothers Size, opened last Friday as a Canadian premiere at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. Written by academy award winning American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, it follows the lives of young black brothers in a small bayou town of Louisiana. Although the plot is relatively uncomplicated, the great depth of this play comes from the often searing relationships among the men, the embracing of the difficult themes of race, poverty, and misguided male identity, and a unique and astounding style born from the African religion and culture of Yoruba.
The brothers Ogun and Oshoosi contrast in many ways with Ogun as the hardworking mechanic trying to get by and the prodigal Oshoosi who is less grounded and seeks diversion after his time in prison. Ogun hulks about as the earthy Caliban to Oshoosi’s more spiritual Ariel. As Ogun desperately tries to pin his brother back to earth, Oshoosi’s scheming friend, and recent prison mate, Elegba just wants to keep the party going and drive a wedge between the brothers. The Yoruba culture permeates all aspects of the play including the symbolic names that come from the West African gods called orishas. Ogun is the god of ironworking, Oshoosi – the hunter who struggles for survival and Elegba represents crossroads and choices. All three fill each role as they combat. The Yoruba influence extends as well to the mainly percussive music, stylized movement and dance and some colourful influences in otherwise drab costumes.
Ken MacKenzie’s riveting set draws the audience into a brooding, dark, wistful place punctuated with some eye-popping stylized pieces. It begins with the stage floor covered in loose material much like oil absorbent in a repair shop. The actors splotch around in bare feet as at a beach, but this material is probably clammy and oily representing instability under one’s footing. A half-buried old rambler is the mainstay of the set. The back end is underground while the front thrusts to the sky, but is obviously tethered as are the brothers. A pile of tires takes up a corner and they are moved about by Ogun representing his grunting work. The irony is that the heavy ugly tires also represent potential freedom for Oshoosi and his dreams of a liberating car. It is noteworthy that Oshoosi never touches a tire. The set is rounded out with an amazing percussive centre that provides much of the haunting Yoruba element.
This work is a distinctive ensemble piece, a phrase perhaps overused, but appropriate here as the three actors equally lift this magical piece. All three adeptly seize the audience with explosive movement and dance sequences, song and chanting, and riveting acting. A highlight is the use of their eyes as they confront and try to control each other. They stare each other down, almost trying to orchestrate each other with deadly precision. Daren A. Herbert plays Ogun with control and coolness until his brother pushes too far. With choreographed movement, he swims under the car, tunnelling and burying himself in his work and in his life. He moves impressively from calm to rage to anger and to laughter seamlessly.
Mazin Elsadig plays the survivor Oshoosi, trying to relate to his post-prison world. His acting strongly stands up to Herbert as they gamely try to outlast each other’s arguments. Elsadig, along with the others, offers some subtle but hypnotic moments such as controlled breathing that moves in volume with the action. Another highlight is controlled finger movement flicking through various emotions.
The persuasive manipulator Elegba is played with determination by Marcel Stewart. Again, his eyes often betray his influence on Oshoosi as he fixes him with a stare or haunts us in dim background light. A highlight is his sudden intrusion in a final scene where Ogun seems to pull his brother from evil, but Elegba pulls him back. Stewart uses compelling physicality such as a twisted, con-like smile to un-nerve us or a rolling, ramblin-man gait that offers both the face of a joker, but also the insincerity of a con man.
The cast is completed with the musician Kobena Aquaa-Harisson, clearly an accomplished composer and percussionist. He moves in and out of the shadows almost as a chorus member and influences the rhythms of the play with astonishing brashly pounding percussion, or subtle and rare percussive sounds of wind or whistle. The range of exotic instruments is fascinating and, again, invokes the Yoruba influence. In this production, Aquaa-Harrison took the place of Waleed Abdulhamid who is the original composer. The sound designer, Thomas Ryder Payne must also get credit for the enormous impact of the percussive background.
The costume designer, Rachel Forbes, offers subtle splashes of colour in the otherwise dark picture. Orange shirts help document the context of the prison background and colourful skin painting brings us back to the tribal influences and the need for some brightness in the darkening world. The director’s use of various coaches delivers crispness to the acting: Jasmyn Fife – movement coach and Alicia Richardson – dialect coach.
The director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu has masterfully orchestrated not only three very strong stage personalities, but the many intricacies of sound, movement, design and tribal influences. McCraney’s play, the second of a triptych, boldly embraces the realities of black lives in America that are associated with racism and poverty. He also attempts to define the difficulties of young black men as they struggle to find their roles. This is a dense project that Otu has delivered with both power and grace.
The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney – Soulpepper Theater – Toronto
Cast featuring: Mazin Elsadig, Daren A. Herbert, Marcel Stewart, Kobena Aquaa-Harrison.
Production staff: Mumbi Tindyebwa Out – Director
Ken MacKenzie – Set Designer
Waleed Abdulhamid – Composer
Laurie Merredew- Stage manager
Runs at Soulpepper Theatre, Toronto through to May 26, 2019 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 52 Tankhouse Lane, Distillery District.
Tickets online at soulpepper.ca.