Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Brothers Size


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.


Terence Clarke said...

A wonderful review of a truly wonderful night in the theatre. Mr Jsckson is right to mark this as an important event in Australian theatre. How excellent to see a production in which director and designer have not taken their task to be to put their own idiosyncratic stamp on the play, their take, but rather to serve the playwright's vision, to find, in Eric Bentley's resonant and exact phrase, 'the life of the drama' - which all three actors superbly do. Mr Wyatt's debut is one of the most impressive I have seen in recent years: commitment, sureness, talent aplenty, grace - life itself

The two best Australian experiences I have had in theatre over the last year - though I haven't been seeing as much theatre as once I did - have been this and 'The Pigeons': both Griffin Stablemate productions by young and (mainly) untried woman directors. All power to them. As Harry Kippax might - would - have said, 'Highly recommended'.

Richard said...

An amazing production of, at times, such incredible intensity and, at others, beautiful tenderness. Finding myself unexpectedly at a post performance "meet the cast and crew" - I learnt their own lives each coincidentally mirrored the story they had just told. Perhaps not so much an amazing coincidence as a tragic statistic. Marcus Johnson told us that he cried the first time he read the script as he was to his brother as Ogun was to Oshoosi - his brother however being sentenced to seventeen years "in the pen". Regardless of personal circumstances these three men all gave amazing performances in an ensemble you are rarely likely to see. I agree with Kevin: do go. I don't see how you could not be impressed with so much about this production.

Mr Mink said...

Kevin, this was indeed a Sydney stage first of some note. First of all a play by an exciting new young black American playwright voice, and secondly with a great young local cast “of colour”. The fact that the cast were of American, Tongan and Aboriginal background I did not realise until I read your and other reviews. They certainly inhabited the roles very well in terms of the dialogue and accents. Having just spent 6 weeks in the US listening to similar patois on Greyhound buses etc as I travelled around the South I found the actors’ dialogue entirely convincing – congrats to the dialogue coach if there was one!

This was overall an exciting and energising evening in the theatre. The staging and lighting on the pocket handkerchief Griffin stage was extremely effective. But the most important element was the drumming by Miriam Lieberman which was both expert but also added an extra sonic layer to the production. I think we did not need what I read about the London Young Vic production in late 2007 – namely a “mythic circle drawn in chalk on the stage at the start” before the three actors “smear themselves in the scarlet pollen ritually cast over the acting area”. All sounds a bit “significant”. But this Sydney production was significant not just for the play itself but also for the fact that we now have young NIDA graduates who can give a measure of authenticity to such characters. Aboriginal themes have been explored before, especially by Belvoir (although Crown v. Jack Charles is disappointing in my view), but this play is somewhat of a landmark of another kind for the Sydney stage. I now hope we can see more like this production.

Kevin Kackson said...

Thanks Mr Mink for your comments.
Natasha McNamara was the voice/ dialect coach on this production, also a NIDA graduate, from the  voice studies course. Since she has also worked on Siren's production of AS YOU LIKE IT for Kate Gaul.