You must excuse me for thinking a play by an African-American writer called The Brothers Size - featuring some big mutherfukrs (characters and actors) would be about – well – how big these guys are! Nope. It’s all in the apostrophe – the one that’s NOT there. The play is NOT called The Brother’s Size or even The Brothers’ Size! Two of the men are brothers and their names are Ogun Size and Oshooshi Size. In this production, these two brothers are different sizes. Ogun, the elder, is a fairly big mutherfukr (I can say this ’cause the characters call each other ‘nigger’ and ‘mutherfukr’, etc) in the form of Marcus Johnson a Los Angelean who graduated from NIDA in 2005. The story in the play concentrates on his relationship with his younger brother, Oshooshi, who in this production is a comparatively pint-sized motherfuckr – Meyne Wyatt, a 2010 NIDA graduate of Aboriginal ascent. But a mutherfuckr nonetheless. The third actor, Anthony Taufo, is also NIDA-connected. He plays a character called Elegba who got to know Oshooshi when they were both in jail. Taufo is of Tongan origin. I think this casting of this play is cool. No need to be racially literal – it’s about being able to act the parts isn’t it?
Director Imara Savage is also a NIDA connected: a graduate of the school’s directing and playwriting courses. She certainly impressed with her production of Fool For Love last year at Downstairs Belvoir. Savage says in the program notes that she was looking for play of comparable vitality, and she has found it in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script, The Brothers Size. This is a strong, muscular poetic play, that mixes up the lyric with the violent. It draws on many sources including Nigeria’s Yoruba culture. In that animistic world which travelled to the Americas via the slave-trade, Ogun is a deity who presides over fire, iron, politics, hunting and war. Ogun here is the alpha male and he also works on cars (metal). Oshooshi is a hunter, and sometimes a solitary shaman-like figure. Here Oshooshi, on release from jail, is on the hunt for pussy and a purpose in life (I think). For that he needs a car. Elegba, is a divine messenger. Having met Oshooshi met in jail and now they are hanging out together, for better or worse – the liaison is certainly of concern to big brother and in the end it brings trouble.
I can see that the actors, with directorial guidance, put some thought into those character underpinnings. And, given the level of experience of the cast and director, there is some very good work here from all three. The performances are very committed, physical, and – by and large – the emotional levels are pulled around effectively to fit what’s called for in the text.
I suggest at this point go read Kevin Jackson’s review – it’s a generous (he acknowledges his NIDA connections) and informative response. It saves me space saying the same things here. What he says about the casting is interesting. He also knows more about contemporary American playwriting than I do - and what he has to say about the playwright in relation to the great August Wilson is well worth noting (here it would be Christos Tsiolkas to Patrick White). Let me add my titbit of knowledge from the other side of the world having looked into the writings of Nigeria’s Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, Wole Soyinka. His work is informed by British and Yoruba traditions – and without being a language expert, I would suspect that if Size is a Nigerian name, it is possibly pronounced with two syllables: Si-ze. Which would have spared me the confusion cited at the top of this story. I am not suggesting that the cast here is mispronouncing the name in this production – one syllable may be all that is used in saying the name in the USA today. I just toss the thought out there – and wonder if we have any Yoruba fluent readers who might advise?
Marcus Johnson as Ogun creates a sensitive brother. Anthony Taufa is strangely compelling in his reticence. Like Jackson I was particularly impressed with Meyne Wyatt. If this is his professional debut, we will no doubt see more of him. Wyatt is not only physically dynamic, he has a great imagination – able to live fully in the moment. As the only Aboriginal of the three black men on stage, he will likely get more changes than the other two. But let’s hope all are is given more chances – aka colourblind casting. I already know one leading director who sees a Hamlet in Wyatt one day.
Perhaps take a look at Jason Blake’s review in the SMH. He too compliments the cast and the casting. He also has his head around the basic plot. I am grateful for that – but would like to know more about what actually happens to the characters in the play as the action unfolds. For all the nice things I can say about this production, Iwas not actually not able to follow the story of this internationally well-regarded play or ultimately judge its quality. I cannot possibly tell you what happens to the characters in any detail, beyond the most basic contours (outlined by Blake). So I have even less idea what this play is meant to be about: meaning why the author was driven to write it or why the director is asking us to watch her version.
For one simple reason: the tendency to shout! This is a really good show ruined by its own noise. I am particularly averse to shouting in the theatre because I find it a form assault. It’s not that I a wish to avoid confronting tough themes or characters in conflict. What I mean is that anger is just another emotion which needs to be ‘acted’ – however an actor comes to that. And in our city in this era, too many actors drop the entire framework of their character and move into that I have called in the past ‘literalism’. The don’t act anger – they just are. They don’t act shouting, they just shout. The most famous shout in theatre history, remember, is silent (Helene Weigel’ s ‘scream’ in the 1951 Berliner Ensemble premiere of Brecht’s Mother Courage). In most theatre we create, there is a construction of artifice – through which we see the truth- and once established we must uphold that scaffold throughout. Not drop when when, and only when, one particular emotion comes along – anger.
For me personally, when actors start to shout in this way a wall goes up between me and the production akin to one of the security glass panes that shoot up from the counter to protect a bank teller from robbery or assault. For all the noise, I hear little behind my piece of glass. Instead of following the story, remaining connected to the actor’s creative journey, I withdraw into questions like: why are these people shouting at us? It’s a small fault in relation to what this production achieves, but it had a big impact on my reception – or lack thereof.
There’s no doubting Imara savage is a talented director. How exciting for a woman to be able wrestle and shape so successfully such masculine material as both Fool for Love and The Brothers Size. And she was fortunate to have a more experienced cast in Fool for Love – there is quite a lot of know-how on stage when you have Terio Serio, Alan Flower, Justin Stewart Cotta and Emma Jackson acting together. They certainly handled their fight scenes more ‘artfully’ in that production.
I wonder what others who have seen this production think of the point I am raising. I could see from looking around me that others in the audience were having less trouble following the show. They were laughing and trembling and engaging with the work while I remained alienated. Still, even if I am a bit over-sensitive when encountering literal violence close up, I still think what I have to say – in principle – about the need to uphold artfulness remains true.Both Jackson and Blake mention how rare it is for us to see a play in this city that portrays the lives of African-Americans. And we are all delighted by the opportunity given to these actors in the way it was cast. More please. If Imara Savage (or Lee Lewis – cited by Jackson) or anyone other director is tempted down that path I recommend looking at the plays of Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka. The masterpiece is Death and the King’s Horseman, but there are plenty of smaller easier ones.
All photos by Giselle Haber