The physical world of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy, playing through Dec. 3 at Company One in Boston, is the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana. But the action takes place in a magical space both more abstract and more corporeal. We know this because each of the three plays – “In the Red and Brown Water,” “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet” – is accompanied by rhythmic humming and grunting – a kind of negotiation between the songs of angels and the deep throbbing of the earth. Like the gospel and soul music they invoke, McCraney’s bayou characters express themselves in the vernacular of their community – “Gon head to run your race,” Mama Moja tells her sprinting daughter Oya who is a star runner at school – but they take on the mythic proportions of the Yoruba cosmology that the plays also draw upon.
Oya, a central character in the first play, is the mighty goddess of wind in the Yoruba tradition. Her lover is the great warrior Shango (embodied in the drama by a soldier off to fight in one of our current conflicts). Their neighbors are other goddesses and warriors – in the shape of mothers, aunts, candy shop owners, deejays, provocateurs and mechanics – whose everyday lives are marked by symbolic connections to West Africa and a powerful past. They read dreams, they see the future, they dispense sage advice, they battle for territory. What they lack in dollars – San Pere is poor – they make up for in roots.
Although each of these plays exists as a solo work, seeing all three in the five-hour marathon is an intense way to witness McCraney’s over-arching theme of community life. Community, in the end, outranks society. The distinction is subtle but important. San Pere is a closed community – repressed by traditions and weighted down by history. And yet it is not tied to the mores of society or religion. The fluidity of sexual practice, for instance, how a character can exclaim, “I’m his woman now!” is determined by the rules these community members have agreed upon rather than the larger culture. In this way, Oya, Shango and the Elegba among others are constantly re-aligning partnerships. It’s not that all action is acceptable. Clearly, Elegba’s homosexuality – or his “secret of sweet” from the title of the third play – is not an easy fit for everyone in the town. But in the end, we see McCraney’s characters as they make their way in a world that time seems to have forgotten but is also on some level timeless.
And yet it is very much our time: Hovering over these stories is the impending shadow of Hurricane Katrina; those hums and grunts also anticipate tragedy. McCraney tells us the trilogy takes place in the “distant present,” but by the end, it’s not wrong to wonder if this community might have been wiped out by the ruthless disaster of 2005.
Of the three plays, the most thoroughly imagined, directed and executed is “In the Red and Brown Water,” which is the story of Oya the runner, how she got her groove and how she lost it. Oya’s story – in a theme touched on in all three plays – embraces the running man motif of early African American literature. Oya runs for her school, but she also is running from her pain and from her enigmatic place in her community. Her mother dies early, when Oya is still a teen, and she must come to terms with her place in San Pere, and her need to find connection. McCraney is in Toni Morrison territory here but falls short of capturing the commanding sexual politics or ethos of Morrison’s female characters. Although McCraney’s male characters are more securely drawn, his female characters still seem on the brink of actualization as characters in the drama. Oya is ostracized by other women when her menstrual period comes in an unexpectedly public way, and later she is labeled, and labels herself, “less” because she cannot have a baby, plot lines that do not ring true.
Notwithstanding the sexual politics, McCraney’s poetics are at their best in “In the Red and Brown Water” where the language imitates the grace and beauty of Oya’s running. “Oya in the air” is chanted time and time again. So is the word “race” – because Oya’s life is a race – albeit tragic when she crosses her own finish line. In a world where race of another sort is central to the story, McCraney doesn’t want anyone to miss the point. It’s not so much a repetition as a litany. But everyone in all three plays is running from something, and, indeed, the actors get a solid workout, too. This is muscular stuff. And it demands fitness and flexibility from the cast – who switch in and out of ages, sexuality and stature.
“In the Red and Brown Water” reads like an extended poem, inflected by those hums, grunts, gospel and soul music, and is almost as satisfying as a work of written literature as it is a stage play – although Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s direction is meticulous, rhythmic and masterful. (Summer L. Williams ably directs the other two segments.) Sandberg-Zakian stages death as a true passing into a choir of angels – and the moment is so imaginatively rich and fearless that the world seems to both stop and expand.
In each of the three plays, stage directions are integrated into the spoken lines in the manner of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. The blurring of external and internal dialogue calls attention to the performative nature of the stage but also of real life. McCraney makes us aware of the management of inner and outer, spoken and unspoken, and you may leave the theater hearing your own internal voice more clearly. That’s not a bad outcome.
McCraney is a young playwright, and the Brother/Sister trilogy is a sign of his immense passion as a writer. His fictional world is one of raw and reeling emotion, and his work turns a prism on an often overlooked segment of our national identity – but also peers into the soul of humanity and history.
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