The Brother/Sister Plays, parts I and II @ McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton

cast list
Barnaby Carpenter, Samuel Ray Gates, Kimberly Hbert Gregory, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Damon Johnson, Nikiya Mathis, Alano Miller, Kiann Muschett, Heather Alicia Simms

directed by
Tina Landau, Robert O’Hara
One of the most exciting parts of attending live theatre is experiencing the power of a new voice.

Thanks to the McCarter’s current presentation of relative newcomer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s three-part Brother/Sister Plays, there’s a chance to view this up-and-coming playwright’s work at the pinnacle of its early success.

Though Wig Out! was produced last year at the Vineyard and one part of the trilogy, The Brothers Size made a splash at the Public Theater several years ago, viewing in its entirety McCraney’s trilogy, which is comprised of In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, is a real treat.
The plays are presented in two parts, with Part I, In the Red and Brown Water, directed by Tina Landau, and Part II, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet directed by Robert O’Hara. While either of the parts can be viewed on its own (they’re playing in repertory) and would offer a satisfying theatergoing experience, seeing the full trilogy on a marathon day, which are offered on the weekends, seems ideal.

In the trilogy, set in the fictional Louisiana town of San Pere, McCraney blends everyday coming-of-age stories with elements of Yoruba myth, infusing characters that may seem recognizable to many an audience member with a music that is distinctly his own, full of the rhythms of ritual and memory.

Alano Miller plays the roles of Elegba and Marcus, the central male figures in the play because of their continuity throughout the trilogy. His are the young gay characters, struggling in a heterosexist world to find his own voice while at the same time holding onto – and investigating – his heritage. Miller infuses these roles with a wide-eyed openness, giving the production its heart. His characters are easy to relate to, because Miller finds a way to avoid dealing in easy stereotypes.

In the sagely role of Aunt Elegua, Kimberly Hbert Gregory is similarly stunning. Throughout the play she ages and, consequently, doubles over as she begins to rely on a cane. But, discordantly, her wisdom increases. Hers is a fascinating character, not unlike the Aunt Ester character in August Wilson’s Century Cycle, to which McCraney’s plays hearken back without a sense of mimicry as McCraney inherits Wilson’s torch as a “black playwright” (whatever that may mean) concerned with grand themes.

The plays, presented on the stage of the McCarter, have an impressive feeling. The proscenium stage is deep, set up with walkways on all sides, its floor reflective, colored an earthy mottled brown and red. With only simple sets (by James Schuette), the directors manage to mine maximum efficiency out of an eager cast.

Still, Landau achieves a certain amount of focus in In the Red and Brown Water that O’Hara’s two entries in the trilogy lack. Landau understands more clearly the importance of ritual and music in McCraney’s work to a somewhat defter degree, giving the rhythmic, musical sections of McCraney’s script a pulsing, electric feeling that O’Hara replaces with earthiness and symbolism.

This isn’t, however, meant as a dig at O’Hara. His two plays of the trilogy are nevertheless impressive and well-mounted, but there’s a distinctly different feeling to these two opposing approaches. One wishes the entire trilogy were mounted by a single director for a greater sense of aesthetic continuity. Still, the plays, which are produced in association with the Public Theater in New York, will likely impress upon their arrival next season.

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