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Chicago by John Olson

The Brother/Sister Plays
Steppenwolf

Also see John's review of August: Osage County

The Brother/Sister Plays
Glenn Davis, Phillip James Brannon and
K. Todd Freeman

The Brother/Sister Plays tells three stories of a fictional community in Louisiana in a way that allows us to sense the African-American experience from earlier generations in West Africa through enslavement in America and into the present day. McCraney's ingenious concept and distinctive writing couldn't be better served than it is by director Tina Landau and its cast of actors who also dance and sing. Landau directed the trilogy's first play, In the Red and Brown Water, both at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton and its transfer to New York's Public Theater last November. Here she directs all three, but In the Red and Brown Water has the most complex and rich staging—using movement, dance and music to tell the story of a young woman who gives up a college track scholarship to care for her ailing mother. The action moves between realism and a dream world, with a Greek chorus-like ensemble commenting on the action through synchronized physical movement and dance.

All three plays are highly presentational, with actors reading many of their stage directions directly to the audience, as if to acknowledge the tradition of storytelling. The stage is bare, with only a painted background on the walls of the playing area. While the action is set in and around housing projects of the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana, the characters are named for mythological spirits of the Yorubas, a people of the West African region from which many slaves were captured. McCraney's characters reflect the spirits' (called "Orishas") roles as well. The track star heroine of the first play is Oya, named for the deity of wind. After declining her athletic scholarship, she takes up with Ogun Size, a quiet and stuttering auto mechanic named for the deity of iron, but she is more attracted to Shango, a solider named for a warrior god who epitomizes virility. Oya has an affair with Shango when he returns from the war, but he abandons her for Shun, named for the goddess known for her beauty and fertility (which the present-day Oya lacks). The language and much of the music performed or heard via recordings is contemporary.

The second program of two one-acts, both around an hour in length, includes The Brothers Size and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. The first of these two takes place perhaps a few years after In the Red and Brown Water, and the action of the third play occurs a generation after the action of the first. In The Brothers Size, set after Oya has left Ogun for Shango, we meet Ogun's brother Oshoosi, who has recently returned from prison. Ogun gives Oshoosi a job in his auto body shop, but it's not long before Oshoosi again runs into trouble with the law, thanks to Elegua, a former inmate. Elegba figures in the first play as a likable but trouble-making neighborhood kid who impregnates an older woman, but is later revealed to be gay. Apart from the device of actors reading their stage directions, The Brothers Size is staged traditionally and sparely, with only the three actors on a bare stage.

Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet is the story of Elegba's son, now 16 years old and never having met his father. Marcus is gay, or "sweet" in the local vernacular. This is news to no one but Shun's daughter Osha, who has a crush on him. Marcus is subjected to some teasing and abuse from his peers, but his greater issue at the moment is to learn more about the father he never knew and to find out if his father was "sweet" like him. McCraney tells us more about the role of homosexuality in black history and society. In slavery, owners would discourage homosexual relations between slaves by whipping them and placing sugar in their wounds, hence the term "sweet." Marcus also learns from Aunt Elegua, the aunt who raised the orphaned Brothers Size, that "sweet" boys are thought to have psychic powers. Aunt Elegua fears that Marcus's dreams of rising water are a sign of danger, and McCraney suggests they may be a vision of the floods following Hurricane Katrina. Humorous and human, Marcus is the most accessible of the three plays.

Much ground is covered in the four hours of playing time, and much is demanded of the audience. The Yoruban spirit names given to the characters will be unfamiliar to most in the audience and the similarities in the sounds of the names add to that confusion. The high level of theatricality of the plays, particularly In the Red and Brown Water, gives a lot of information for the audience to process and I found my reaction to this first play to be more intellectual than visceral. The latter two with their more direct narratives connected with me more emotionally. These plays require some work from the audience, but Steppenwolf is there to help. As always, they provide extensive program notes and background in their program and offer an audience talkback session after each performance. The company's commitment to enhancing their audience's shared understanding of their work is always laudable and is particularly appreciated and perhaps necessary here.

No advance preparation is needed, though, to admire the stunning work of the cast. Each of the nine performers, most of whom play two or more roles, gets a chance to shine. Alana Arenas is the first to take center stage. As Oya, she's initially optimistic and strong, but becomes touchingly and increasingly sadder and more tragic as she loses her mother, her opportunity, and her lover. Arenas gets to play upbeat again, as a teenaged gal pal of Marcus in the final play. The versatile Ora Jones is Oya's saintly mother and a mystic in the first play, and Marcus' single mother in the last. K. Todd Freeman plays Ogun, the only character to appear in all three plays, and he displays amazing range in the character's aging and growth, moving from the insecure stutterer of the first play, through the disappointed and protective brother of the second play to the sadly defeated man of the third. Glenn Davis plays Elegba in the first two and Elegba's son Marcus in the third. His Elegba changes from a wily, irresponsible teen in the first play into a more cunningly sophisticated manipulator in the second. Davis then makes a complete transformation to the geeky gay teen Marcus, carrying the last part of the trilogy on his shoulders.

The hapless Oshoosi Size is played touchingly by Phillip James Brannon, who handles two smaller parts in the first and last plays as well. The muscular Roderick Covington is appropriately cast as Shango, named for the virile god of war, and he brings the necessary swagger and machismo to that role and to the part of a man who has sex with Marcus on the "down-low" in the last play. Tamberla Perry is a vivacious and gorgeous Shun in the first play and Osha in the third. Jacqueline Williams is an authoritative mother figure as Shun in the third play and a mystical and matronly Aunt Elegua in both the first and third. She gets to age twenty years as Aunt Elegua between the two. Jeff Parker, the cast's only caucasian, plays the college recruiter and a merchant in the first play as well as serving as a member of the ensemble in the third.

Steppenwolf is performing both programs on Saturdays and Sundays, and alternating the two on Tuesday through Friday evenings. It's not necessary to see the two programs in any particular order—what little plot details are important between the first and the second plays are recounted in the second. Starting with In the Red and Brown Water allows the audience to see the action of the three in strict chronological sequence, and those who are more comfortable with linearity may want to keep that in mind. Though one can see all three plays in a single day or over two successive days, those who can leave some time in between may want to do so. The theatrical devices can get lose some of their impact over the course of several hours and there's so much to experience in these two programs that it may be easier to absorb it over time.

McCraney and Landau risk offering too much of a good thing. The theatricality, while effective, tends to draw attention to itself and away from the content. Still, the overall impression left is enormous. We see the interconnection between members of a community and between generations—both successive generations and ones separated by centuries. It's worth the effort of preparation and attention it takes to take it all in.

The Brother/Sister Plays will be performed Tuesdays through Sundays at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, through May 23, 2010. Tickets available through the Box Office at 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650. Online ticketing available at www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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