note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
There’s something lyrical, yet powerful, mystical, yet contemporary, about Tarell Alvin McCraney’s triptych Brother/Sister plays, currently appearing at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre. Although all three plays - “In the Red and Brown Water,” set in the “distant present; “The Brothers Size,” 14 years later; and “Marcus:or the Secret of Sweet,” four years after that - are interrelated, they can be enjoyed and appreciated separately as theatrical works of art. The timeline spans 16 years, but the location remains the same --- the fictional bayou city of San Pere, Louisiana. The characters also remain constant, including those who die and emerging adolescents.
McCraney has combined his American southern and ancestral Yoruba roots of West Africa that embraces “Orishas” or spirits and the elements, imbuing these spirits symbolically in his contemporary characters. He infuses the elements of air, earth, and water within the core of each play, breathing life into his contemporary mythically-based characters. Allegorical, foreboding dreams, water and storms punctuate several scenes, capturing a lingering, superstitious, paranormal atmosphere. Oftentimes, the cast simulates chain gang, tribal chants and movements within funeral processions or breaks between scenes. “This road is rotten,” three men chant in “The Brothers Size”, “This road is rough....”
In all three plays, lighting designer David Roy’s sun-drenched, orange, pastel and gray skies light up the background, its rays shining through designer Erik Diaz’s slatted, wooden frame. In “The Brothers Size,” the cast uses sets of metal steps as props, to change from a bedroom, a garage, a car, etc., and in “Marcus,” those slatted frames are opened wide, introducing depth and doorways on the barren stage.
Also, “The Brothers Size” takes place 12 years after “In the Red and Brown Water”. Ogun Size, owner of Ogun’s Car Shack, awakens his younger brother, Oshoosi, who has returned from the “pen,” and is enjoying his freedom. Oshoosi has dreams of going to school and making a career for himself. He wants to travel, he says, to Madagascar or Mexico -- see the world. However, he is troubled with hideous nightmares, and can’t sleep, haunted by his visions and flashbacks -- and his probation officer.
He is comforted by his friend, Elegba, a muscular buddy from the housing projects and his prison cellmate, who works in a funeral home. Although Elegba sings and smiles sweetly, he has an evil glint in his eye. At times, he’s like a bisexual incubus, his destructive mischief luring Oshoosi to doom. The curtain closes as Ogun tries to save Oshoosi from returning to prison for screwing up, under Elegba’s mesmerizing influence. Ogun gives Oshoosi everything he owns, enabling the confused, ex-con to escape --- we think. Oshoosi’s fate is revealed in “Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet”. Hampton Fluker is provocatively alluring, sweetly innocent as young Elegba in the first play, slyly revealing his evil side in the second play, then reverting to his sexual awakening and self-awareness as “sweet” young Marcus, Elegba’s son, in the third play. James Milord is also moving as Egungun, the swinging, lurid DJ, in the first play; as doomed, vulnerable Oshoosi Size; and as teen-aged bully Terrell and spiritual Oshoosi in “Marcus”.
Throughout the three plays, Johnnie MacQuarley is eloquently stable as Ogun Size, an unsensational mechanic and successful owner of a car repair shop.
In “Marcus,” much like “In the Red and Brown Water,” water plays a central role. “Marcus” opens with an ethereal figure dressed in white, (Milord) looking upward as ethereal white light embraces him and falling rain blesses him, almost baptismally. A funeral procession passes before young teens, Marcus, and his girl friends, Shaunta and Osha. The walking cortege chants, cries, for deceased fallen hero, Shango, but the three youngsters are playful, affectionate, then appropriately chided by their mothers.
Like his father, Elegba, Marcus has the gifts of song and “sight,. and is considered sweet (homosexual). He, too, is drawn to the water, and is plagued by mystical dreams - of this visionary man in white, standing in the rain, beckoning. Marcus wants to know more about his father, but adults change the subject whenever he asks. Even Ogun, stands mute. brushing the boy’s queries aside.
When Joshua, or Shua, (Chris Leon), a sensuous, handsome, alluring stranger from the Bronx, visits the housing project, he creates turmoil among the teens.
Company One’s direction, casting and production team are masterful in all three plays, punctuating playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s words and lilting poetry, mystical and natural imagery that’s contrasted by realistic contemporary life in urban projects.
Willowy Miranda Craigwell, who as conflicted young competitive runner Oya is spellbinding in Part I, switches mood and tone as fun, feisty teen-ager Shaunta Iyun, in Part III, and Juanita A. Rodriguez adds dash, humor and reality as portly Aunt Elegua in Parts I and III. Michelle Dowd is marvelously versatile as Oya’s saintly, sickly Mama Moja, Oya’s friend, Nia, and Vodun follower (The Woman Who Reminds You) in Part I, and is also outstanding in dual roles as Marcus’ and Osha’s mothers, Oba and Shun, in Part III. And pretty, petite Natalia Naman, who is young, sexy Shun in Part I effectively returns in “Marcus” as her pretty teen-age daughter, Osha.
It sounds confusing, but with this cast’s tragicomedic performance, the only problem with identification at times is translating the Louisiana dialect and indigenous language.
However, the acting is so powerful, especially with performers giving stage directions during the dialogue, nothing is lost here. McCraney’s plays have scored high ranks in Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, Atlanta. London, Dublin, and Barcelona; and are enchanting local theatergoers.
BOX INFO: Boston premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy plays, presented by Company One: “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus:or the Secret of Sweet,” directed by Summer Williams, now through Dec. 3: Nov. 25 at 8 p.m., Dec. 1, 7:30 p.m. at the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts (BCA), 539 Tremont St., South End, Boston. First play, “In the Red and Brown Water,” directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, appearing Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 2, 8 p.m. Marathon days (all three plays): Nov. 26, Dec. 3, at 4,8 p.m. Nov. 27, 3,7 p.m. Single performance tickets, $38,$33; students, $15; seniors, $30. Both performances, $69,$59; students, $30; seniors, $55. For more information, visit BostonTheatreScene.com, the Box Office at 527 Tremont St., or call 617-933-8600.