With the regional premiere of The Brothers Size, Curious Theatre has given Denverites their first chance to experience the work of Tarell Alvin McCraney, an African-American writer barely out of his twenties who's been hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as an important new voice in theater. McCraney grew up in the Liberty City housing projects of Miami with a crack-addicted mother, was teased by other boys for being effeminate, found a youth arts program and ended up in graduate school at Yale, where he served as August Wilson's assistant while the world-renowned playwright worked on his final play, Radio Golf. After Yale came multiple productions and awards, as well as a stint as resident playwright for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. McCraney cites Yoruba as influence and inspiration, along with the work of — among others — Federico Garcia Lorca, Peter Brook and Alvin Ailey, whose dance piece Revelations he saw when he was thirteen. "I try to write how I see dance," he once said.
The Brothers Size is set in the Louisiana bayou, and the three characters are at once flesh-and-blood people and mythical figures named for Yoruba deities. Oshoosi Size has just been released from prison after two years. His brother, Ogun, owns a car shop, works like a man possessed, and wants his brother to pursue the same trade. But there's a third man in the picture. Elegba was Oshoosi's prison mate, and he wants his friend back. On one level, this is because of the sexual pull between them; on the deepest level, however, the battle is for Oshoosi's soul — and there's a bitter and ongoing dispute about who has the right to call him brother. In the Yoruba tradition, Ogun is a blacksmith, a powerful figure of fire and blood. Oshoosi, who yearns for freedom, is named for a hunter and forest wanderer. And Elegba's namesake is a trickster, shape-changer and bringer of chaos. But in this complex and shifting tradition — which originated in Africa, was brought to this continent by slaves and, upon encountering Christianity, morphed into forms like voodoo and Santeria — he's also a psychopomp, the enigmatic figure who escorts living people across the border into death.
The play is an attempt to fathom the unfathomable: the depths of the men's souls, what they mean to each other, the things they leave unsaid or can't even articulate to themselves. The brothers reminisce about their shared past and the family conflicts in which Ogun, seen as the responsible one, continually took the blame for his younger brother's fecklessness, furiously angry yet fiercely protective. He harasses and harangues; Oshoosi lazes in bed, fantasizing about pussy and car rides to anywhere; Elegba haunts the play's edges.
When words are insufficient, other elements carry meaning. Dreams play a prominent role in The Brothers Size, along with sound and movement. The play opens with the sound of drumming, and the men's bodies speak for them as they stomp, dance and repeat phrases. Percussion is everywhere. Ogun beats out a rhythm on his toolbox; he and Oshoosi make instruments of their wooden lunch plates. In one of the play's richest and funniest moments, the brothers sing and dance to Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." There's language, too, of course: McCraney has created an original kind of dialogue, sometimes homespun and realistic, sometimes broken and evocative, sometimes blazing out with preternatural force. The characters actually speak their own stage directions. For example, as Ogun slides backward on his creeper: "Ogun goes under the car, irritated." He slides out, has a bit of a bicker with Oshoosi, and then: "Ogun goes back under the car." This device could seem Brechtian and distancing, intended to remind the audience that they're watching a play. But McCraney, influenced by his Baptist preacher grandfather's sermons, has said it's meant to invite the watchers in and make them part of the ritual.
Director Dee Covington's production is evocative and very visual. Shannon McKinney created the elegant, magical set and lighting. Laurence Curry plays Oshoosi with a light touch — he's a charmer with a winning smile, and you can see why his family forgave all his transgressions. As befits a shape-changer, Damion Hoover's Elegba seems just a little different with every entrance. Playing Ogun, Cajardo Lindsey towers over the evening, terrifying in his anger, heartbreaking in his grief, and sometimes — like the play itself — wonderfully and unexpectedly funny.