SBW STABLES THEATRE, KINGS CROSS.
In 2005 the great African American writer August Wilson died. He had written what is now known as THE PITTSBURG CYCLE. Ten plays that trace the history of an extended family through the last century. It is a formidable body of work. We, in Australia, still, have not seen any of these plays on our stages - a cultural hole and loss of some estimation. In 2006 a young African-American writer (almost 31) had his first play IN THE RED AND BROWN WATER work shopped at the Yale School of Drama. Since then, two other plays, THE BROTHERS SIZE and MARCUS: OR THE SECRET OF SWEET have been work-shopped and then produced across the United States (THE BROTHERS SIZE was nominated for an Olivier Award in London). The three plays together form a trilogy under the title THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS.
"McCraney's lush and gorgeous triptych - surely the greatest piece of American writing by an American playwright under the age of thirty in a generation or more - smolders." - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune.
Of THE BROTHER / SISTER PLAYS, David Rooney of Variety writes, "These are spiritual works that thrum with vitality, told in vigorous language that folds together slangy vernacular with bursts of haunting poetry. If there's an heir to August Wilson, the gifted McCraney may be on his way to claiming that title." Further, Ben Brantley of the New York Times, "McCraney writes with a passion and urgency that can't be faked, in a style that invests ordinary lives with the grandeur of ancient gods. Watching these plays, you experience the excited wonder that comes from witnessing something rare in the theatre : a new , authentically original vision."
This production at the Griffin Theatre does confirm the heralding of this new exciting talent of universal impact.
"Mr McCraney was raised in the projects of Miami, with family members who battled drug addiction. His mother died from an AIDS-related illness at the age of 40. He's described the world of the theatre as a 'lifeline' out of the poverty that dominated his upbringing. "I was trying to master and understand the socio-economics and drug addiction that was destroying my own family, and I did not have a way to express the confusion or the small joys that were evident", McCraney said. "Theatre, as well as dance and music, allowed me the ability to put those larger questions into a form that, at least, ordered them into a more beautiful chaos. That's all we ever really want in life, right? To feel like we can for a moment order the chaos into something manageable, or at least perceptible." (1).
THE BROTHERS SIZE is the middle play of the trilogy and, fortunately, it is not necessary to know the other plays. Imara Savage, the director, found this play and pursued the rights to do it in Sydney. Then she found three Australian actors, Indigenous-Australian Meyne Wyatt (Oshoosi Size); Tongan-Australian Anthony Taufa (Elegba); and of African-American heritage Marcus Johnson (Ogun Size), all recent graduates of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).
In a black space, of an entirely appropriate and elegant minimalism (Designer, David Fleischer) with just a floor encircled with a grate that allows blue light to emanate, and a beautiful lighting design in a smoky haze by Verity Hampson, the three physically impressive actors (Movement, Daniella Lacob), move/ dance a prologue opening song to the live accompaniment of musician/ composer, Miriam Lieberman, on two percussive African drums. An impressive and vital detail of production.
The language of the text has the actors speak the instructions of the physical action, i.e. "Ogun Size enters" or "Ogun Size is left alone. Without his brother. The music plays in the background." as well as the poetic / prose of character interaction: arias of vivid poetry and dialogue. The technique provides an invitation by the writer and the actors, to the audience, to participate creatively and intimately with the artists, to bring this experience to life. It works spectacularly, throughout, in the mouths of these actors and climaxes in a joint reminisce, through music and song, between the two brothers (Otis Redding's TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS), that is a community celebration in nostalgic warmth of familial connection, that, as an audience is hard to resist participating in. These brothers of Mr McCraney's imagination have made us their family, too, by this point in the play. Their plight, our family's plight. The emotional identification is high. The play dramatises the relationship responsibilities between brothers: Ogun, running his auto shop, having found a destiny and surety in the contemporary world of San Pere, Louisiana, near the Bayou, and his younger brother Oshoosi, just returned from prison and with a predilection for trouble. The world, events and relationships of this play by Mr McCraney become subtly of our time and place but atmospherically of an ancestral tribal inheritance. The Yoruba culture of West Africa, Nigeria, is reflected in the names of the characters and the music of the score and the haunting sound design by Caitlin Porter. An embracement of another universe is possible with resonances for our own Australian lives.
That we have not seen any of August Wilson's work in Australia has to do, mostly, I presume, with the pragmatics of not having a numerous Australian cast of respectful heritage (The cast of Mr Wilson's plays are often large). That Ms Savage has found a play that requires only three colour-specific actors and that the actors are at hand in Sydney, and more than competent for the challenge of this text, is a gift for Sydney audiences. To have this young writer's work intertwined into our cultural lives is a boon of some importance.
A gentle but important moment in Sydney theatre history is taking place in the SBW STABLES THEATRE with this production. Australian actors of colour are finding authentic connection and identification to this text and characters. Lee Lewis was present at the performance I attended and her thought provoking Currency House essay: Cross Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre, of a few years ago, popped into my head. The fact that three recent NIDA graduates were investigating this play was exciting indeed (as I mentioned in my blog on SPEAKING IN TONGUES, I could cast Louis Nowra's play, set in China, THE PRECIOUS WOMAN with Australian Chinese actors right now, as well. Worth considering?).
Meyne Wyatt, a 2010 graduate from NIDA, makes a spectacular professional debut. His performance of the innocent, naïve and trouble prone Oshoosi is one to savour. The contemporary speed of this actor's image making leaps, is matched by a dexterity of fearless technical proficiency. The instincts of body and voice, almost harnessed, to tell the story well. Mr Wyatt is in charge of his scenes and this play, and, as his confidence grew, after some conscious hesitation of confidence gaining in the first few scenes, transcended into a passionate and detailed revelation of a contemporary youth, a youth of needs, who has the lack of patience to deserve the right to have them. What he wants is an entitlement of living, not an earned achievement. This throws Oshoosi into the cauldron of societal conflict and from which his older brother Ogun, may be his only respite for survival.
Marcus Johnson, A NIDA graduate of 2005, carries his African American heritage onto this stage with growing passionate conviction and the revelation of a life lived. Nervously, the actor finds his feet of confidence and arrives securely, in the dramatic climax of the play, of Ogun's confession of his sacrifice for his brother, who, once again, has let him down, finishing in an invocation of a grief stricken litany: "You fucked up you fucked up you fucked up you.........You fucked up." and, on the night I saw it, it was a theatrical highlight of identification and raw exposure that is searing to witness and tear making.
Anthony Taufa, a 2009 NIDA graduate, creates a physically sinuous and desperately "sweet" character of Elegba, the catalyst to the crisis of the play. The physical presence is dominating and, when absolutely focused, the vocal power and precision, scalpel-like in its affect on the events of the story.
This steady policy of the NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF DRAMATIC ART, reflected also in the work of the other actor training institutes throughout Australia, of training the immensely diverse multi-cultural make-up of our nation, is providing the resources, gradually, for an expansion into a truly representative International repertoire of our present times, for Australian audiences. Perhaps the exciting contemporary British playwright, Roy Williams, may be seen here. Even productions of August Wilson's THE PITTSBURG CYCLE, or parts thereof !!!???
Imara Savage and her collaborators have introduced a contemporary American writer of beauty and original vision and deserve congratulations. Do go. Although, a young company of fledgling actors a striking début indeed. Mr McCraney can have his confidence in giving this young team the responsibility of introducing his work to Sydney, well rewarded.
1. Article in the Sydney Star Observer: FINDING ORDER AMID THE CHAOS by Nick Bond.
I should as well declare, in the context of this review, that I am at present a member of the teaching staff at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) - Kevin Jackson.