‘Moonlight’ writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s gaspingly intense 2007 debut play returns
Brotherly love can be a pretty weird thing, I have discovered over the years. My own experiences of this are in many ways a blessed world away from those of the eponymous protagonists of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2007 debut play ‘The Brothers Size’. But if the details are very different, the emotions often feel startlingly familiar.
San Pere, Louisiana. Oshoosi (Jonathan Ajayi) is fresh out of prison. Ogun (Sope Dirisu) owns a motor shop. Oshoosi is a sensitive live wire. Ogun is gruff and responsible, having long assumed the parent role after their mother died young. Oshoosi chafes under the older Ogun’s harsh regime and stern lectures, and dreams of other things.
Apart from one, glorious, tragically interrupted scene in which the duo sing along artlessly to Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’, the brothers don’t seem to particularly enjoy each other’s company. But in Bijan Sheibani’s taut ten-year-anniversary revival of McCraney’s spare, ritual-tinged play, the emotions feel enormous: operatic and primal.
Sheibani’s revival is essentially a straight restaging of his original 2007 Young Vic Maria Studio production, scaled up for the main house. The title roles have been recast: Dirisu is excellent as Ogun, a man visibly staggering under the strain of a level of responsibility no one person can possibly bear. And relative newcomer Ajayi is sensational as Oshoosi, raw as a wound, a free spirit wholly incapable of surviving on his own in a society that locks up men like him without a second thought.
This is a play about black manhood, sexuality, racism, the US justice system and the ties that bind. And it’s channelled through an immaculately stylised aesthetic – McCraney’s vision – which mixes Yoruba-inspired movement and Brechtian deconstruction to create something strikingly reminiscent of Greek tragedy at its most visceral.
Building up from expletive-strewn bickering and macho posturing to something molten and monumental, the most powerful moments are the torrential monologues that come towards the end. There is a third character, Oshoosi’s ethereal, sexually ambiguous former prison buddy Elegba (a hypnotic Anthony Welsh, who also played the role in 2008). In his most powerful moment, he excoriates Ogun with a speech about the younger sibling’s love for the older that’s so intense that it virtually sucks the air out of the room. And in the final scene, Ogun’s last act to protect Oshoosi is so anguished it’s almost unwatchable: two guys who don’t even particularly like each other sacrificing their futures for one another, offerings on a raging pyre of emotion.