Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
February 8, 2013
Here’s a dramatic way to commemorate Black History Month: spend some time at the theater. Two searing dramas with impressive pedigrees are making their local debuts. Both have a strong sense of the ethereal, grounded in a bitter reality.
At the Old Globe, “The Brothers Size” is the acclaimed second part of “The Brother/Sister Plays,” a trilogy by Chicago-based theatrical wunderkind Tarell Alvin McCraney .
Set in the projects of the Louisiana Bayou, the scorching drama deftly combines the African American present with West African Yoruba mythology. The exquisite first installment, “In the Red and Brown Water,” was stunningly mounted at UC San Diego late last fall. Some of the characters repeat here, and almost the entire plot of “Water” is told as a local bit of gossip in “Brothers Size.” Both plays share McCraney’s stylistic signature: naming the characters for Yoruban deities, and having them voice their stage directions. The poetry of the sometimes angry words alternately soothes and rattles. Drumming punctuates and underscores the melodic, hypnotic language.
Under the expert and meticulous direction of Tea Alagić , the three consummate actors move nimbly, like rough-talking, hardbody spirits, every word and emotion carefully choreographed to highlight the unearthly aspects of their connection. Mostly, it’s about the
brothers , no-nonsense Ogun Size and his soft-hearted screwup sib, Oshoosi — though shirtless, seductive Elegba claims a brotherhood with Oshoosi , too, since their shared incarceration. The magnetic forces shift repeatedly in this beautifully intense, hauntingly powerful exploration of fraternal bonds.
Family plays a significant role in the works of August Wilson, too. The late, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright chronicled the entire 20th century of African American life, decade by decade, in his Pittsburgh Cycle. “Gem of the Ocean” was the last written but it’s the first chronologically, and Cygnet Theatre is presenting the San Diego premiere.
It’s 1904, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where emancipation is still very much on everyone’s mind. The talk is all about freedom: from the bonds of slavery and from your own personal, self-imposed shackles. The crux of the story is Citizen Barlow’s journey, his search for redemption. Having inadvertently killed a man, he’s come to the house of Aunt Ester, the 285 year-old matriarch who courses through many of Wilson’s plays. She’s known to conjure peace and healing.
The plodding, chatty first act gets off to a slow start. But the magic kicks in during Act 2, in a mesmerizing spiritual ceremony wherein Aunt Ester takes Citizen to the City of Bones. We can almost conjure it, too.
Guest director Victor Mack helms an outstanding cast, highlighted by the ghostly transformation of Laurence Brown’s Citizen and the buoyant determination of TJ Johnson as Solly Two Kings. The potent production is excellently served by the set, lighting and costume design.
Be aware that the N-word is rampant in both these muscular plays. But so is fierce emotion and the abiding ties that bind, restrain and liberate.
“The Brothers Size” runs through February 24 at The Old Globe in Balboa Park.
“Gem of the Ocean” also continues through February 24 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
©2013 PAT LAUNER