Genius

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Since I’m a pretty frequent theatergoer, I’m probably not as easily impressed by  something as the next guy is (so I heartily snorted with scorn and derision at the suburban soccer dad sitting beside me, over –the-moon with pleasure, at the undistinguished, Broadway-bound trainwreck that was The Addams Family last month).  I see a lot of plays I like, and some that I absolutely love, but it’s pretty rare for me to see something that I’m blown away by.  Something that stops me in my tracks to remind me how invaluable theater can be to living a life intelligently and fully.  It happened in 2007 at Steppenwolf during the unforgettable world premiere of August:  Osage County which indisputably proved the power of great theatrical storytelling.  It hasn’t happened since…well, until this week, when I was at the two necessary nights for Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s genius The Brother/Sister Plays, which already pulverized with shock and awe New York’s jaded theatergoers, including the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, in their Public Theatre premiere late last year. (My usual full disclosure statement:  I am a member of Steppenwolf’s Auxiliary Council, the theater’s young professionals’ board).  Like August, The Brother/Sister Plays, comprised on one night of the longer In the Red and Brown Water and on another night of the two one-acts, The Brothers Size and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, is great theatrical story-telling.  But McCraney’s important magnum opus is more epic, more ambitious, more risk-taking, not only in theatrical form, but in theatrical content as it navigates through explosive threads in the African-American experience (underage pregnancy, homosexuality practiced on the “downlow” among straight men).  The Brother/Sister Plays is heady, intense, exhilarating, wrenching, proof that theater, with its mix of drama, movement, dance, and music, is the most complete live performance experience possible; more importantly, with its scope, its creativity, its emotional magnetism, it’s probably my theater-going generation’s Angels In America.

Great theater needs to be experienced, so reducing The Brother/Sister Plays to a “plot summary” more appropriate for a newspaper arts page events listing is unfair.  Suffice it to say that In the Red and Brown Water is about Osha, a talented track runner who misses an opportunity to change her life circumstances by giving up an athletic scholarship to care for her dying mother; The Brothers Size is about the fraught, complicated relationship between two brothers, the younger one just released from prison; and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet is about a boy coming to terms with his sexual identity. And the way McCraney tells these stories is stupendously breathtaking:  sometimes impressionistic and stylized, sometimes realistically unnerving; with characters that weave in and out of the plays, some of them their older selves, or versions of themselves, or echoes of themselves; with dialogue which can be poetic and mythical on one hand, and blisteringly raw and foul-mouthed on another; ensconced in music (pop, gospel) and dance (stepping, hiphop, vogueing) and a myriad of theatrical devices (Greek choruses, characters saying stage directions aloud, pantomiming of a character’s movements); delicately balancing both folklore (the characters are named after Yoruban deities) and socio-political commentary (the characters’ perspectives on their lives in the Louisiana “projects”).  The plays, taken together, are an incomparable, immersive, highly original experience:  you lose yourself in the sensuality of the visual imagery and the aural cues, the riveting emotional pull, and in the sharp intellectuality of a playwright who can write scenes of both devastating heft and joyous life-affirmation.

 And some of the scenes are doozies, with so much emotional power that I have not felt in any other play I’ve seen recently:  in Red or Brown, Osha’s presentation of a “gift” to her lover Shango who spurns her for her inability to conceive a child is so full of gut-punching heartbreak;  in The Brothers Size, the brothers’ joyful, profound emotional bonding by dancing to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” is so full of glorious, exuberant affection and love of life;  in Marcus, a complex, wonderfully staged scene about homosexuality among slaves powerfully, richly, astonishingly establish the history and context of the ambivalent, inconsistent view on homosexuality among African-American men in a few short minutes.  I can’t overlook director Tina Landau’s masterful, calibrated contribution in bringing McCraney’s indelible world alive. Landau, who also directed Red or Brown at the Public last year but who directs all three plays here, between astute use of lighting, pacing, physicality, and stage composition manages to make McCraney’s world believable in its mix of realism and mysticism, the unlikely co-mingling of the serrated edge of Precious and the diaphanous hauntedness of a Garcia Marquez or Murakami short story.

I have never been an actor, but I could guess that with material this exceptional, an acting ensemble would be inspired to constantly be on their A-game.  The nine person cast of The Brother/Sister Plays is without a doubt delivering nine of the best performances you can see on a Chicago stage this season, so it’s so hard to single any one out because their work is so integrated and so essential in the overall fabric of the three plays.  But if there is one dominant performance over the two nights, its Steppenwolf ensemble member K. Todd Freeman’s intense, emotionally complicated Ogun Size, the older, more responsible, more reflective brother.  Because Freeman plays the character in all three plays, it’s marvelous to see how he shades and differentiates Ogun across the different works:  in Red or Brown, his younger Ogun is less confident and more idealistic, in The Brothers Size, a bitter, older Ogun, still scarred by Osha’s decisions, is tightly wound and inaccessible but is able to show flashes of tenderness towards his brother, in Marcus, Ogun is both world-weary and intrigued by the boy Marcus’s feelings towards him.  Freeman gives a magnificent, riveting, unforgettable performance.  But he isn’t alone:  Jacqueline Williams’ meddling, earthy Aunt Elegua is funny, touching, bombastic, indelible; Alana Arenas’ Osha is radiant, haunting, beautifully layered; and Glenn Davis’ Elegba is sexy, dangerous, smoldering.

 I could go on and on and rave about The Brother/Sister Plays in more spaces than my blog would accommodate.  But I’d hate for you, my dear blog readers, to just stay in and read; I’d like you guys to hurry up and brave the slushy, slippery Chicago streets and go experience two of the finest, freshest, wondrous, glorious nights of theater you’ll ever have.  And yes, you can all thank me later. 

The Brother/Sister Plays are playing on alternate nights at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted st., until May 23.    If you are true lovers of arts and culture, which I assume almost all of my blog readers are, you’ll be rushing out to go see both nights.  I’ll personally unsubscribe anyone from my blog who misses these plays!  No excuses!

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2 Responses to “Genius”

  1. Joel Says:

    Hey Francis — finally got a chance to see the “sister” side of these plays. Excellent! Really top notch performance.

  2. francis Says:

    I’m glad you liked it Joel! I NEVER steer my blog readers towards anything unworthy! :)

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