On Friday night we went to Imara Savage’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size at the Stables Theatre. Let me say up front that I’ve known Imara since she was a baby, and it’s fair to say I’ve been a fan of her theatrical productions since she was two years old. But I’m perfectly capable of a tactful silence, and this production made me want to shout from the rooftops.
Close to forty years ago, theatre critic Katharine Brisbane observed that drama being produced by African Americans at the time was in some ways strikingly similar to contemporary Australian drama – something to do with coming out from under racism and the legacy of slavery in their case, and a colonial past and the cultural cringe in ours. If she was right the almost complete absence of African American writing from our stages in recent years is our great loss. And even if she was wrong, if this play is any indication it’s been our great loss anyhow.
The play was first performed in 2007 in New York and London. It’s a three-hander: Ogun Size (played by African American Marcus Johnson) has a small car repair company, his younger brother Oshoosi (played by Indigenous Australian Meyne Wyatt) is recently released from gaol, and Elegba (played by Tongan-heritage Anthony Taufa) who befriended Oshoosi in prison, became a brother to him, turns up. The Stables’ tiny stage is completely bare, the walls painted black, with a lighting design that seems to accentuate the darkness. A woman (Marian Lieberman) plays a drum – I don’t know anything about African drumming, but it felt to me that drum’s function was to summon up the action rather than merely to accompany or punctuate it. Once you know who the characters are, you more or less have the plot: Oshoosi is pulled in opposite directions by his two ‘brothers’, with tragic results. But that’s a framework for a wonderful 75 minutes in the theatre. For one thing, the dialogue is richly poetic, rising at times to operatic intensity, and the performances are absolutely up to the challenge. It seems to me that in some Australian productions of US plays, a focus on getting the accents right results in wooden performances – at least that’s my guess at what made Philip Seymour Hoffman’s production of True West at the STC last year so deadly dull in spite of the great talents at work in it. That wasn’t a problem here. As in the Nimrod’s legendary Tooth of Crime in this same theatre in 1972, the accent-work generated a stylistic rhythm, a music that was completely engaging. The bare stage allowed the language to fill the space.
But I’m making it sound like the equivalent of a concert performance of an opera. It wasn’t like that at all. One of the things that made it so powerful was its intense physicality. The director’s note says someone has described the play as a choreo-poem, which might sound wanky to anyone who hadn’t seen it, but isn’t a bad description at all. One of my companions said she couldn’t help wondering who this young woman was, to be able to direct such a testosterone-charged show, yet with such a nuanced take on possibilities for tenderness.
Sometimes, though rarely, shows transfer from the Stables to larger venues, and it seems a shame that the size of the space limits the number of people who see this. On the other hand, it gives a great sense of privilege to see such excellence at such close quarters.
If you can get to it, do. If not, make a note of the names I’ve mentioned. If there’s any justice you’ll be seeing a lot more of all of them.