- Tarell McCraney is Talking to You
- The Distant Present
- The Brother/Sister Plays
- Old Traditions, Modern Stories
Tarell McCraney is Talking to You
How The Brothers Size calls on the audience to share the story
By Andrea Allen
It's a little like church. The style of The Brothers Size, according to playwright Tarell McCraney, is "call and response." You may not literally be saying "amen," but in that metaphor, the audience is an integral piece of the action. "There must be a response to the call," he says. "Otherwise it's just rehearsal."
In the play, actors speak some of the stage directions in order "to invite the audience into the story—to remind the audience that they are being spoken to and are a part of the experience," continues McCraney. "And to allow the actor a chance to really focus on telling the story rather than pretending they are someone else."
Speaking to audiences through imaginative, impassioned storytelling is something McCraney does remarkably well. Since receiving his MFA in playwriting from Yale School of Drama in 2007, the 30-year-old writer has become one of the most in-demand playwrights in the country. His plays are often sparked from his own past—he grew up in the Liberty Housing projects in Miami, his time split between his Baptist father and grandparents, and his mother, a crack addict with an abusive lover.
But for McCraney, autobiographical inspiration often twists and wends into something surprising. Case in point, his most recent play on Broadway was Wig Out!—a musical exposé of New York's drag scene.
Closer to his own biography, The Brothers Size is part of a trilogy titled The Brother/Sister Plays, which are dedicated to his siblings, including a younger brother who served a two-year jail sentence. Using Yoruban mythology as his creative muse (see sidebar), the play tells the story of two brothers with the last name Size, right after the younger one has been released from prison.
"For this period of my life, I was trying to find a way to have a conversation with my immediate community," McCraney said. "I needed to focus on a bed-rock that was home-grown and embedded in such a way that we could not deny it."
Eddie R. Brown III, who plays Elegba in the play (a friend to the younger Size brother), says that The Brothers Size is "the quintessence of brotherhood. Every aspect of brotherhood is covered, is unearthed, is voiced."
Brown comes to the project with a unique view on the subject. Eddie and Tarell have a long history of exploring brotherhood together. "We grew up together in the arts," says McCraney. We went to every institution together—high school, undergrad, and graduate school."
Brown remembers the first time they worked together, in high school. "We did Master Harold and the Boys, and I played Sam and he played Willie," Brown recalls. "That was the moment that we really bonded and became brothers." Athol Fugard's play about two middle-aged black men in apartheid South Africa who work as servants for a white teen-age boy was challenging for the young actors. "To do that show as two high school students, it's kind of as deep as it gets. But we knew it was safe, and the space was sacred and it bonded us because we trusted each other so much during that process," Brown says.
Creating that same type of sacred space is crucial for a play like The Brothers Size. Fortunately, the team of actors and designers are committed, open, and, in a few cases, serendipitously tied to the play.
"Most people would say there is some nepotism going on," says McCraney. "But I found out Eddie was cast in the Seattle production after he'd auditioned." In addition, Constanza Romero, widow to August Wilson, designs costumes for the production, bringing a connection to one of McCraney's key mentors.
While at Yale, McCraney worked as an assistant to Wilson on Radio Golf. "August Wilson said to me: 'You need music, you must always have music.' It takes on different meanings, that phrase, but it's never a lie."
Infused with music and poetry and dance, The Brothers Size is difficult to describe other than as a ritual.
But it's a new ritual, according to director Juliette Carrillo, one that the artistic team has built throughout the rehearsal process. "The people in the room are creating what this is—unraveling our own ritual," Carrillo says.
McCraney reinforces the need for the play to feel immediate, contemporary. "Brothers Size is a fable told in the now," he says. In the script, the setting is referred to as the "distant present." Meaning? "It happens somewhere between now and then," he explains. "When you tell a story it's always in the past, but this past can be repeated."
For those who might worry that the play might be difficult to understand or poetic at the expense of a clear narrative, actor Eddie Brown insists that's not the case. "The beauty of T’s work is that he’s really dramaturgical. He’s mapped this thing out. It’s not just words arbitrarily on the page. Everything has a purpose, everything is intentional," he says. "And because it’s intentional, you’ll get it."
Carrillo further emphasizes that this work is made to be understood by each individual experiencing it: "Part of your job as an audience is to interpret these rituals through your own experiences."
McCraney also returns to the dialogue between performer and patron. "The audience is there to bring their stories, their recognition, their confusion and their imagination to the process too," he concludes. "Our job [as theatre artists] is always to help nurture that from them and teach them that without them there is no event."