‘Elegba appears at the window,
Like a glimmer of moonlight
For a moment, is gone.
‘Oshoosi sees it,
How could he not?’
Throughout Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy The Brother/Sister plays, the characters speak their stage directions as well as their lines. Looking up at the audience, Jonathan Ajayi, Sope Dirisu, and Anthony Welsh share with us their own performance. They deliver their directions with a clarity and calmness, and cast back the performativity of the moment. Telling us what they are doing as they do it, the characters archive themselves. Every moment becomes doubled, becomes a remembering.
The Brothers Size sits in the middle of The Brother/Sister Plays, and is, at its heart, a prolonged moment of reckoning. In the prologue, the cast create a white chalk circle on the in-the -round performance space and then throw red powder, which gradually colours in the circle. The actors leave vivid red footprints and smudges throughout the physically exhausting and mesmerizing performance. Director Bijan Sheibani deftly charts the triangular tensions between brothers Ogun and Oshoosi Size, and Oshoosi’s friend from jail, Elegba.
After being released from prison, Oshoosi grapples with the concepts of identity, freedom, and brotherhood as he determines his place and position in the world. Based in the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana, father figures are distinctly absent, and the brothers are left to forge their own path.
A dream quality emerges in this ‘distant present’, its temporal setting a far-away now. Everything is a remembering, but it’s also a self-fashioning. And that’s where McCraney’s work feels most potent: it exists in a place that’s both rooted and untethered. This mirrors the tension stirring in Oshoosi: his loyalty and love for his brother jars with his desire for exploration and with his love for Elegba.
McCraney draws on icons and stories from Yoruba cosmology, with characters named after the orisha deities: Ogun (god of iron) Oshoosi (god of the hunt), and Elegba (god of crossroads as well as chaos). Oshoosi is at a crossroads, and Elegba is his guide. The Brothers Size explores the importance of roots, of knowing where one came from, but also articulates the necessity of routes: the always transient state of becoming, which emphasizes the creative process of self-fashioning and self-making.
No wonder Sheibani has the actors constantly moving, making red impressions on the stage. Ajayi is remarkable as Oshoosi, care-free, enduring, joyfully funny. Dirisu’s Ogun is sturdy and stoic, but when he and Ajayi perform Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness, he offers a childish joy, the kind only shared between siblings. Welsh’s Elegba is enigmatic and steady; he’s the conduit for the most tender and turbulent moments in the play.
Yet the wistful, dream-like quality brushes up against a stark reality for Oshoosi, one that shoves its weight unpredictably, and forces Ajayi to switch from jovial to overwhelming grief. If anything, Sheibani could have highlighted the moments of affection and peace between Elegba and Oshoosi more. The dream sequence carries a harsh industrial background noise that emphasizes Oshoosi’s despair but stifles the comfort Elegba offers.
Watching this show, expertly directed and magnificently performed, made me yearn to see the entire trilogy. Parts of The Brothers Size refer backwards to In the Red and Brown Water, and foreshadows Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, and those allusions lose their full significance in isolation.
Thinking back on the performance, it’s the rhetorical questions that get me, the ones the characters ask themselves: ‘How could he not?’ These questions express all that is inexpressible, all that makes the characters move. Lyrical and original, The Brothers Size a complex and poignant portrayal of a fraternity often underexplored.
The Brothers Size is on until 14 February 2018 at the Young Vic Theatre. Click here for more details.