The Brothers Size
by John Stoltenberg
“You fucked up! You fucked up! You fucked up!” rails the older brother, berating the younger. “You fucked up! You fucked up! You fucked up!” he goes on, as if he cannot rage enough, as if he can’t get it out of his system. “You fucked up! You fucked up! You fucked up!…”
This jolting speech comes midway in The Brothers Size like a ritual of chastisement, like an incantation of blame, transliterating into raw poetry the troubled brother bond that Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney lays bare.
Ogun Size the older brother (Gary-Kayi Fletcher) is the responsible one. He is an auto mechanic, stolid; he owns and operates a repair shop (imaginatively represented by Set Designer Giorgos Tsappas as an upstage mound of inner tubes). Oshooshi Size the younger brother (Clayton Pelyam Jr.) is the ne’er do well, impressionable, a shirker, just released from prison on parole and crashing with Ogun. The explosive tension between them is not unmixed with filial love. Ogun sincerely wants to help Oshooshi get back on his feet, make something of himself. Ogun readily offers Oshooshi a job managing his shop. But Oshooshi has no inclination to be improved and mocks his older brother’s industrious work ethic:
Oshooshi Size: Ogun you better stop man.
Stop doing it to yourself.
You keep working like that
Everyday all day at that damn shop
You gone work yourself to death
You better don’t…
Death kill the lazy last.
A third character appears, Elegba (Thony Mena), Oshoosi’s buddy from prison. Ogun accurately sizes up Elegba as a bad influence on his brother. Oshoosi doesn’t see Elegba that way at all; Oshoosi, in fact, values his friendship with Elegba over his brotherhood with Ogun. In this tempestuous triangulation, McCraney plays out and gives poetic voice to a profound drama about the meaning to men of other men—and, not incidentally, what happens to men in the pen.
McCraney’s script has the actors speak some of the stage directions aloud along with their other lines. He does this, he has said, “to invite the audience into the story—to remind the audience that they are being spoken to and are a part of the experience. And to allow the actor a chance to really focus on telling the story rather than pretending they are someone else.” This has an intriguing and compelling effect: Even as we are pulled into the characters’ lives, we are left a respectful distance with which to process what’s going on.
McCraney, who wrote The Brothers Size in the mid-aughts when he was at Yale Drama School, himself has a younger brother who served a two-year jail sentence. Coincidentally, the motif of accomplished older brother and incarcerated younger brother was the theme of novelist John Edgar Wideman’s 1984 memoir Brothers and Keepers, about his fugitive younger brother, who was sentenced to life. Wideman frames the story as an argument for prison reform:
A society that allows its prison system to slip below the radar of public scrutiny, below humane standards of decency, provides an essential tool for tyrants or tyrannical ideologies to criminally seize control of a state.
The Brothers Size is not such an argument. It is an intimate epic. It is a ravishing mashup of song, poetry, and dance, with elements of Yoruba myth, eloquently staged by Director José Carrasquillo in a superb production at 1st Stage as if in a sacred space (here a circular blood-tainted pool surrounded by a solid round stage ringed by a soft substrate that yields to footfalls). Moreover, The Brothers Size is a powerful parable about whether one brother can ever free another—and how a seeming friend can ensnare another—told by three enthralling actors who sing and chant and grunt and dance and grapple and beat their chests percussively, commanding the space like celebrants and demigods. But the fact of Oshoosi’s and Elegba’s imprisonment haunts the narrative with a persistence they cannot escape.
The Brothers Size will leave you deeply, perhaps inexplicably, moved.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.