Big in Every Way: THE BROTHERS SIZE at Manbites Dog Theater through September 29

Alphonse Nicholson, Thaddaeus Edwards, and Kashif Powell (background)
in THE BROTHERS SIZE. Photo: Michael McCullough.

Leaving the theater on opening night of The Brothers Size, I had the oddest sensation of entering an imaginary world as I stepped into the cozy bright lobby. Inside the dark theater, we’d been immersed in a rough reality, overwashed with waves of a mystic reality. Subsumed as a group in the rhythmic drumming, our hearts beat together with those of the characters before us, locked with them into the sustained intensity of their struggles. Outside, there were cakes and wine, smart chat, separate parties. Life seemed pale beside this art.

The Brothers Size (which runs about 100 minutes without intermission) is part of a trilogy by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It debuted in 2007, when the author was only 27 years old. It’s an amazing script, in terms of character, story, intensity, clarity and inventiveness. Some may find elements of the language distasteful, but it all seemed appropriate to the people and situation. A white person could not have written this, though, and there is no fashionable cross-race casting. These three characters are black men, as well as representing three of the Yoruba orisa, and they need to be played by black men.

Ogun Size is a hard man, like his namesake, and has built himself a car repair business. His main concerns are survival and protection, and he comes on singing, like a work chant, “this road is rough.” Kashif Powell, in a coverall, plays Ogun with almost unbearable rigid force. His younger brother, Oshoosi Size, has recently gotten out of prison and is living with Ogun. Oshoosi is concerned with freedom—with being and feeling free—and J. Alphonse Nicholson gives him a fluid, willowy physicality. (Jeremy V. Morris will portray this role in the second half of the play’s run.) Elegba—deity of the crossroads, and a trickster—is Oshoosi’s friend from prison. Thaddaeus Edwards, all in black, with a black sequined belt, gives the seductive Elegba a sly, knowing look as he glides in and out the scenes, instigating.

Working with director Joseph Megel, and with the aid of drummer Teli S. Shabu, the brothers engage in a dance of thought and feeling, with outbursts of song. They dance all around the idea of freedom. Do you live hard or live easy? Prison is not the only lockup. You can be stuck like a stone, unfree in other ways. Some you can escape, but you can never escape your brother. He will always be your brother: You will call for him; you will let him go; you will not leave him behind—and his inescapability is another kind of freedom.

Near the show’s end, the two brothers Size sum up the method for reconciling their differing characters, which Elegba has set at odds. In Derrick Ivey’s bleak set made of rope and old tires, they put on Otis Redding, and “Try a Little Tenderness” blossoms from their throats. Young girls are not the only ones who get weary on the rough road. Even a man hard as iron needs that balm.

This article was first published in The Independent Weekly, appearing in print with the headline “Tall tales and karaoke nights.” It is available on The original contained an author error, corrected on the Indy site and above. Correction: Running time is about 100 minutes (not 140 minutes).

THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART: Nothing’s Too Strange for the Devil’s Cèilidh

Alasdair Macrae (L) and David McKay in the Back Bar at Top of the HIll, 9-14-12.

Carolina Performing Arts opened its 2012/12 season with a pleasingly, teasingly, satiric cèilidh of a play, THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART, written by David Greig, and performed by five actor/musicians from the National Theatre of Scotland. The play is set in a pub, and the CPA production took place in a pub—the Back Bar at Chapel Hill’s Top of the Hill brewpub. Since the show includes a great deal of gentle mockery of the more ridiculous aspects of academia, not to mention considerable carousing and carrying on, holding it off-campus was a good idea. You could get a beer, and those walls have undoubtedly heard far more scathing remarks about professors and their ludicrous papers than the more formal precincts of Memorial Hall.  And, it was big fun.

The National Theatre of Scotland sounds like an old established institution, but in fact, if was founded in 2006—and it has no home stage. Its mission is to find and tell, and re-tell, the stories that need to be told, in the places where people need to hear them. The company, based in Glasgow, takes its shows to the people all over Scotland, and now tours internationally. They last appeared locally, at CPA, with their Iraqi war story, Black Watch. In the Triangle area, the most easily comparable company is the itinerant Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern.

But back to the cèilidh (say: kay-lee), a Gaelic social gathering with traditional music and dance. When held on the winter solstice, when at midnight a crack opens between the worlds, “a chink between the mighty walls of time,” it becomes the devil’s cèilidh, and who knows what may happen. One thinks immediately of the similar set-up in Conor McPherson’s St.Nicholas, in which the devil joins a Dublin card game late on Christmas Eve.

(L to R) Philanthropist Tom Kenan, PlayMakers artistic director Joseph Haj, and Emil Kang, director of Carolina Performing Arts, making paper snow for the blizzard.

Prudencia Hart and her colleagues at an academic conference on Scottish Border ballads, held in Kelso, in the Borders area south of Edinburgh, should have known about this tradition, but when a blizzard traps them, post-conference, in the pub, they are caught unawares and swept into the ancient way of marking the season of darkness. Prudencia, trying to flee, runs right to the devil (David McKay, wonderfully understated), who, naturally, is a man of wealth and taste.

While this, despite its sympathy for the devil, is not the most gripping of plays emotionally, it is a delight in its use of language and rhyme, which follows the Border ballad style, and for the fantastic music. If you are from North Carolina, you will recognize in the players the gene pool that sent so many Borderers—Scots and English—into the Piedmont and especially, the mountains of Carolina, where the old songs were well-preserved (for more on this in semi-fiction, see, for instance, the film Songcatcher). And, you will recognize the music, even if you don’t know these songs. Composer and musical director Alasdair Macrae, in particular, looks like he just came down from the Carolina hills.

Annie Grace and Alasdair Macrae led the music.

He (playing a staggering number of instruments, including the harmonium), and powerful singer Annie Grace (who plays the lowland pipes, and a pretty mean bodhran) are the primary musicians, but the other actors are good enough to keep up. One amusing aspect was seeing and hearing how musical influence flows many ways. Scottish traditions appear not only in Appalachia, but further west in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, and on its journey across America, Scottish music got familiar with the banjo (here’s Jimmie Driftwood putting the Arkansas twang on the old ballad, “Lord Randall”)—and there was actor/musician Andy Clark playing an Ozark-brand banjo in the play’s ballads old and new.

Andy Clark on Ozark banjo

Poor Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove) needs shaking up—she is, as musician/actor Macrae intones, “intent on capturing a transcendent moment and setting it in stone.” Or as her nemesis, the uber-cool prof Colin Syme (Andy Clark) puts it to her face, she’s “just a librarian.” Perhaps a season in hell is a bit much, for unlike Syme, she truly loves the beauty and poetry of the ballads, and the whole show explicates their qualities directly.

Melody Grove as Prudencia Hart

The rhyming is marvelous; here are a few examples:

Elektra/protect her



Pint of bitter/checking Twitter

And when Prudencia steps fatefully out into the storm in search of a B&B, she moves from “a room of sex, drink and violence/to a world of utter silence.”

After a very, very long time among all the books that ever were in the devil’s library, Prudencia finds the way to “fuck the devil and steal the key,” and slip back through the crack between the worlds. Back in her old life, she’ll be able to speak with unprecedented authority on what had previously been a glib presentation phrase: “hell’s place in the collective psyche.” Like the play’s producers, I’m of the opinion that the best place for that topic is one offering music, poetry and plenty of libations.

The show closes in Chapel Hill tonight (sold-out), but the tour continues. See company website for schedules in DC, Chicago and around the country.

At the cèilidh

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