Cain and Abel. Joseph and the siblings who sold him into slavery. From biblical times through today, stories about betrayal and deadly competition among brothers abound.
But rarely have the stories been told as they are in "The Brothers Size," celebrated playwright Tarell McCraney's urban take on age-old fraternal tensions.
The drama, which opens Saturday at the Guthrie Theater in a co-production between Pillsbury House Theatre and the Mount Curve Company, is the second in a trilogy. It follows the potent, evocative "In the Red and Brown Water," produced last year at the Guthrie by the same team, including Tony-nominated director Marion McClinton.
Set in the Bayou, "Brothers Size" is about love, forgiveness and the quest for freedom. It revolves around auto mechanic Ogun (James A. Williams) and his brother, Oshoosi (Namir Smallwood), who recently has been sprung from prison. Oshoosi's prison mate, Elegba (Gavin Lawrence), who, in the parlance of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, is "family in the large," also is part of the action. Outside of the pen, Oshoosi and Elegba struggle to stay on the straight and narrow, even as they feel trapped by their shared incarceration.
"I had to live through some of the issues in the play with my own brother," said McCraney from London, where he was putting the finishing touches on his latest work, "The Choir Boy."
"I had to listen to him as he tried to find work. Wherever he went, they would say, 'Well, you have a record.' We're beyond that now, but for millions of people trying to find work and re-enter society, that situation is really complicated."
"Brothers Size" focuses less on the physical marks of incarceration, than on the men's interior lives. The action moves between the past and the present, dream space and reality.
"I wanted to show how lives are changed by the prison system," said McCraney, 31, who wrote "The Brothers Size" in 2007, the same year he graduated from the Yale School of Drama and won the Cole Porter Playwriting Award. A London production of "The Brothers Size" was nominated for an Olivier Award, Britain's Tony. "Young men come out and for the rest of their lives, it's like they went to war. They can't sleep well. They keep wanting to run because the prison has built a space inside them, and they will do anything to escape."
Family by blood and choosing
The play's linguistically rich themes have struck the cast and director in personal ways.
"You can't choose the people you share a bloodline with, but you do get to choose your" closest friends, said Williams, who has known McClinton since 1977. "When we met at 19, we didn't know that we were choosing to be brothers for the rest of our lives. We thought we were just doing a job together, painting the firehouse door at Mixed Blood."
"You have this way of being with people you love that is different than anything else," said McClinton. "When you are working on the same thing, when we're coming to it with such care and knowledge of each other, you find a truth that's bigger than a play. This is about life lessons, about our souls and our lives."
For Lawrence, McCraney's language continues to be a revelation. "The [dialogue] is so liquid, so fluid, it just keeps moving," he said. "It's such a rare thing to find something so precious and infinite for me as an artist, as actor, a black man, as a father, a brother, a son."
Like "Red and Brown Water" and the third work, "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," "Brothers Size" is anchored in the West Africa-originated Yoruba religion. The three men in the cast are named for Yoruba deities: Ogun, the god of iron, Elegba, the trickster god of the crossroads, and Oshoosi, the hunter and shaman.
A gift of large feelings
McCraney said that his characters speak in metaphor and mythic tones "because they do not have much to give but acts of faith. They can't give you anything tangible but hopes and dreams and large feelings."
The playwright gets annoyed when people try to pin his characters too tightly to religious or any other meanings. The three men in the story are Americans through and through, with African roots and retentions.
"There's no need to dress them up in African robes," McCraney said. "We were brought here and have been here since the founding of this nation. It's important to know that bedrock. As the RNC said, we built it."
McCraney likens this work to Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," "not because it deals with brothers but of how it handles a family waiting for something," said McCraney. "They have all these secrets sitting behind each other and are waiting for things to come to the surface. Of course, when things finally come to the surface, it's almost always too late. The difference is my play is urban and rooted in a different tradition."
The play is about different types of love among these men.
"It's interesting that there aren't more stories about the places where the lines of love go," said McCraney, who quoted the late poet and gay rights activist Essex Hemphill: "He used to say that men of color loving each other is a revolutionary act. You have movies that will explore how dangerous love is, and songs about that. But there are some types of love that you don't quite see depicted. A man can make a friend who's closer than his brother sometimes."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390