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Review: McCraney’s ‘Brothers Size’ rocks the stage with spectacle, heart (Includes first-hand account)

That’s clear from Soulpepper Theatre Company‘s bold, sizzling new production of McCraney’s 2007 one-act play The Brothers Size, the second part of his Brothers/Sisters trilogy. It shares themes with Moonlight – particularly the plight of young African American men struggling to find their identities and come to grips with modern notions of masculinity – but tells its own unique tale, inspired in part by West African Yoruba mythology.

Ostensibly a simple story of two brothers confronting their differences, the script sparkles with compassion, wit and catchy dialogue. And director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu’s production pulses with life and rhythm and emotion, with help from Ken MacKenzie’s eye-catching set, Raha Javanfar’s atmospheric lighting, and a percussion accompaniment by musician Waleed Adbulhamid (though Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison substituted for him on opening night Friday).

The Brothers Size of the title are Ogun (Daren A. Herbert, who’s terrific), the responsible elder brother who runs an auto-repair shop in San Pere, LA, and dreamy free spirit Oshoosi (Mazin Elsadig), recently released from a spell in prison and looking for work. As Ogun tries to get his aimless brother focused on shop work, into the mix comes Elegba (Marcel Stewart), Oshoosi’s former cellmate and lover. Elegba has found a job at a funeral home (Oshoosi: “You workin’ on dead people?” Elegba: “Better than workin’ on live people”), but he’d much rather have fun. When Elegba gives his old friend an old car, they go out for a ride together, with dire consequences that affect this sibling bond permanently. (The character names are taken from Yoruba gods who reflect their personalities.)

That summary may make the play sound like straight, realistic drama, but in Otu’s hands, it often feels like a dream – and not just because it has two key dream sequences. The music and Javanfar’s bold lighting choices enhance that feeling, as does the distinctive, hypnotic rhythm of McCraney’s dialogue, which often includes literal stage directions spoken out loud by the actors in the third person: “Ogun enters, covered in oil,” or “Oshoosi sighs,” and so on. (I found this technique bizarre when it was used in Factory Theatre’s remount of Salt-Water Moon in 2016, but here, it strangely works, as if the characters are making detached commentaries on their own actions.)

Despite the dreamlike feel, Moonlight fans who were entranced by the movie’s serious tone and slow, deliberate pacing may be surprised at the humour and light moments throughout Brothers Size. Ogun and Oshoosi make an amusing odd couple at times, and there’s even a fun, joyous scene in which the brothers bond by singing along to “Try a Little Tenderness”. But there are many jarring emotional moments as well – often from Herbert, who has painful monologues full of accusation and reproach directed at his wayward brother. There’s one uncomfortably honest scene in which Ogun furiously yells “You f—ed up!” at Oshoosi, repeatedly, refusing to relent until his brother admits it’s true. And McCraney’s script is rife with poetic lines that speak to the dark truths of the oppression and limits that visible minorities continue to face, especially in the South. “Prison make grown men scared of the dark again,” Elegba says to Oshoosi as they painfully remember their incarceration together, adding that their relationship “made a light in the dark.”

MacKenzie’s unusual set places the action atop a large platform with an angled, half-submerged car sticking out on one side and a pile of prop tires on the other. The car serves many practical purposes – as Ogun’s workshop, as a place for characters to sit, as a spot for Oshoosi and Elegba to lie on while reminiscing – and also carries clear symbolic weight. It could represent Oshoosi’s half-repressed potential, or perhaps the general struggle of the African American community everywhere, trying to claw their way out of the quicksand of imprisonment and oppression. Whatever it is, it works.

Soulpepper’s staging of The Brothers Size brings life back into theatre. Although this production is a sum of many wonderful parts – fine performances, striking tech, music, et cetera – it blends them all together into a functioning organism that makes live stage drama feel exciting and new again. As he did with Jenkins on Moonlight, McCraney finds another working kindred spirit in Otu, who makes the playwright’s word come alive with energy, passion and truth. This is a winner. See it.

The Brothers Size runs at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts until May 26.

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