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Daren A. Herbert, Marcel Stewart and Mazin Elsadig in The Brothers Size.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

  • Title: The Brothers Size​
  • Written by: Tarell Alvin McCraney
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
  • Actors: Mazin Elsadig, Daren A. Herbert, Marcel Stewart, Kobena Aquaa-Harrison
  • Company: Soulpepper Theatre
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Sunday, May 26

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It’s lovely what an Oscar or two will do for you. American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney was flying under the radar – at least north of the border – until 2017, when he walked off with the statuette for scripting Moonlight, which of course (sorry, Faye Dunaway) also grabbed the gold for best picture.

Cut to 2019 and McCraney’s breakthrough play is making its Canadian debut at Soulpepper Theatre in a production that brought Drake out for the opening night.

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The play is The Brothers Size, which, until Moonlight, was McCraney’s best-known work. Drake chose well – it’s not only a terrific piece of writing, but this is a terrific production.

First staged in 2007 by New York’s Public Theater – at, appropriately enough, its Under the Radar Festival – The Brothers Size is a lean but muscular drama that artfully uses threads of West African Yoruba mythology to spin a contemporary tale of African-American lives in the rural Deep South.

All the qualities of Moonlight are here – the sensitivity, the sensuousness, the keen insight into young African-American men – as well as a great deal of humour and high spirits. At Soulpepper, it’s been put in the capable hands of director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, who did such a smashing job last year with the company’s revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by the great August Wilson, McCraney’s mentor.

The siblings of the title are Ogun Size (played by Daren A. Herbert) and his kid brother Oshoosi (Mazin Elsadig). Ogun, named after the god of metalwork in Yoruba, is a mechanic who runs an auto-body shop in small-town Louisiana. Oshoosi, a rover like his Yoruban namesake, the hunter god, has just been released on parole after a two-year stretch in the penitentiary.

Ogun, solid and reliable, wants Oshoosi to settle down and gives him a job at the shop. But the restless Oshoosi dreams of getting a car and hitting the road. Enabling him is Elegba (Marcel Stewart), his former cellmate, named after Yoruba’s trickster deity, the agent of temptation. The two men were lovers in the pen and Elegba shows up to rekindle their romance by providing Oshoosi with the wheels he desires.

It’s a simple story, a parable, but McCraney uses it for a penetrating exposition of the dynamic between the two brothers. Ogun and Oshoosi may be fraternal archetypes, but they’re also complicated, flesh-and-blood characters. There is anger and resentment in their relationship, but also the strong bond of two young men who had to come of age largely without parents and were forced to rely upon one another. It’s as moving a portrait of brotherhood as I’ve ever seen.

Funny, too, in the pair’s needling rapport and, especially, in a scene of giddy transcendence when Oshoosi, the singer of the two siblings, performs Otis Redding’s version of Try a Little Tenderness to Ogun’s gut-busting delight. It follows on the heels of an earlier scene, in which sly Elegba gently seduces Oshoosi to the accompaniment of an enticing soul groove.

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Music plays a central role. The show’s fourth performer is Ghanaian-Canadian musician Kobena Aquaa-Harrison. Armed with a battery of traditional African instruments, he produces everything from rolling thunder to birdsong, laying down an often subtle but ever-present soundscape.

He sits on the margin of Ken MacKenzie’s set, which transforms the middle of the Michael Young Theatre into an undulating gravel-pit-cum-bayou, from which a half-buried vintage car juts out its hood like a surfacing alligator.

Herbert, Elsadig and Stewart fill that space with vibrant physicality and compelling performances. Elsadig is a loose, charmingly boyish Oshoosi who enjoys playing feckless grasshopper to his peevish worker-ant brother. Herbert’s solid, coverall-clad Ogun makes palpable both his frustration and his love for Oshoosi and emerges as a touchingly noble figure. Stewart’s soft, amusingly sinuous Elegba is the most disarming of serpents.

This is a play of dreams and nightmares, of interludes of ancient ritual, a play where the characters might at one moment be dealing with the hard realities of African-American life, such as police harassment, but in the next will be speaking their own stage directions. If it begins by being self-consciously theatrical, by the end of its 90 minutes you’ve been swept up in its emotional power.

The Brothers Size is one of three connected pieces by McCraney called The Brother/Sister Plays, all set in the same Louisiana milieu and inspired by Yoruba tales. Now that we’ve seen the brothers, we’re eager to meet the sisters. How about it, Soulpepper?

Editor’s note: (May 15, 2019) An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that this was the Canadian debut of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. This version has been corrected.
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