Through April 26 at the Yale Cabaret, 217 Park St., New Haven. (203) 432-1566. www.yalecabaret.org
By Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Luke Harlan. Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield. Set: Kevin Klakouski. Lights: Andrew F. Griffin. Sound: Pornchanok Kanchanabanca. Costumes: Montana Levi Blanco. Projections: Rasean Davonte Johnson. Associate Projections: Elizabeth Mak. Stage Manager: Anita Shastri. Producers: Alyssa Simmons and Melissa Zimmerman. Performed by Jonathan Majors (Ogun Henri Size), Galen Kane (Oshoosi Size), Julian Elijah Martinez (Elegba) and Mike Mills (percussionist).
The Yale Cabaret’s 46th season ends with a bang. The bang of a mechanic fixing up an old car with a wrench. The bang of a slamming cell door. The bang of two brothers fighting, then cooling off, then going at it again.
The Brothers Size is one of the Brother/Sister trilogy which Tarell Alvin McCraney was working on when he was a student at the Yale School of Drama from 2004-07. It’s the only one of the three plays that wasn’t given a public production; both In the Red and Brown Water and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet were done at the School of Drama’s Carlotta Festival. McCraney also did a couple of one-acts at the Yale Cabaret while he was a student, and assisted classmates on a number of other Cabaret projects.
I saw as many of McCraney’s works as I could when he was here, and treasure those experiences. It’s nice to report that the current Cabaret production of The Brothers Size is very much in keeping with how McCraney’s plays looked and felt while he was still developing them. The production is visceral, physical, musical. It respects the playwright’s conceit of having actors recite their own stage directions (“Ogun Henri Size enters,” Ogun Henri Size says as he enters), without overplaying it. It presents the drama within a clearly marked rectangle on the floor, with virtually no sets and props—just as McCraney used to like it. It makes sure there’s a liveliness, a lot of action, and not just a lot of verbiage.
This rendition, directed by Luke Harlan (who’ll helm the Yale Summer Cabaret season that starts in a few weeks), is helped immeasurably by the addition of local music scene legend Michael Mills of the percussion ensemble Drums Not Guns. Mills is onstage throughout the play, punctuating scenes and underscoring the musical passages and even creating sound effects for the fistfights. Mills is a major element, building upon McCraney’s deft blend of ancient African myths and traditions and modern-day African-American struggles.
As for the play’s three actors, Jonathan Majors and Galen Kane as the titular brothers—the straightlaced workhorse Ogun Henri and his troubled, just-incarcerated sibling Oshoosi—and Julian Elijah Martinez as the charming trickster Elegba play well off each others rhythms and keep the drama tightly wound in such close quarters. The men spar and natter with conviction, distinguishing themselves through the occasional monologues but mostly working as a smooth, well-timed ensemble. It helps that the Cabaret (which not that many years ago was adhering to a strict one-hour-or-less time limit for all its shows) is presenting McCraney’s full-length script virtually uncut, clocking in at around 95 minutes. That means there’s no choppiness. It means you hear every one of Ogun Henri’s invocations that Oshoosi “fucked up.” It means you can savor all the emotional exchanges, and more than one verse of “Try a Little Tenderness.”
The Brothers Size has been a well-known play for years, and has been getting staged regularly around the country. But it’s a special thrill to see a McCraney play back at the Cabaret. This stuff still swirls with energy, and enraptures audiences. It’s a compelling story of a young man attempting to regain his life and find sensible career options, while constantly looking over his shoulder and hoping he doesn’t get arrested for anything again. This is play about family, about society, about universal truths that extend back thousands of years. Luke Harlan, a sharp cast and the amazing Michael Mills get the enormity of this project. They keep it small, they keep it close and they keep it immediate. This Brothers Size fits all.