“The Brother/Sister Plays” is dark poetry about difficult lives

By Lucy Komisar

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s powerful plays are written in the dark poetry of lives marked by desperate seeking after love etched against routine misfortune and tragedy. Yet the characters often exhibit joyous defiance against the odds of disappointment.


The friends and family whose lives make up the stories McCraney tells reside in the projects in the mythical city of San Pere in the bayou of the Louisiana Delta, south of New Orleans. There’s little sense of an outside world.

They use a Black English argot. The dialogue is stylized, with people speaking both in narrative and third person stage directions about themselves. A character may finish a speech with the comment, He exited, providing a sense of distance, as if the person were looking from afar at his own life.

In the Red and Brown Water, fluidly directed by Tina Landau, centers around Oya (the strong and engaging Kianne Muschett), a sprightly high school girl who is a fast runner. She is offered a running scholarship at the state college. But her mother is ill, and she must choose whether to take that chance or stay and be near her mother in her last days.


Oya, with a sweet smile permanently etched on her face, moves through life as in a dream. She is courted by the smooth Shango (Sterling K. Brown). His rival is the reserved Ogun (Marc Damon Johnson). She seems to lose her center when her mother dies.

Everyone is in white. Sometimes there is a Greek chorus of characters singing and moving. The set is composed of matched metal cans and barrels back-dropped by a raised walkway. The projects they represent are not grungy; they are surreal.

The people around them include mischievous Elegba (the very talented André Holland), who is a funny charmer as a kid, and Aunt Elegua (the excellent Kimberly Hébert Gregory), who likes young men and exudes a sense of joie de vivre. The desperation and lack of options of the young women in the projects is shown by their desire to get pregnant by boyfriends who, they hope, will then stay with them.


The Brothers Size, tautly directed by Robert O’Hara, is much harsher. Ogun’s brother (Brian Tyree Henry), who has just spent two tormented years in prison, won’t get a job. Ogun, a proponent of tough love, denounces his laziness and tells him he should work in his car repair shop. Marc Damon Johnson brings strength and bottled up emotion to the role of Ogun.

There is affectionate bonding in a lively duet as the brothers sing and copy the style of an Otis Redding song. But grown-up Elegba (Holland) was also in the pen and is a bad influence. Holland is brilliant playing Elegba, playing a cop, playing a child.

A parsons table is a car and a bed.

The third play, Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, also smoothly directed by O’Hara, shows Holland as a 16-year-old high school senior trying to figure out his sexual leanings. Is he sweet? He finds out from a street-smart visitor from the Bronx (Sterling K. Brown). The scene is expressive and painful.


Marcus (Holland) lets himself go in a moving dream song and dance with two girls decked out as sunflowers. The light side is provided by Nikiya Mathis, very funny as Shaunta, a high school classmate. And Gregory is powerful both as Elegua, now an old woman, and Shun, the mother of one of Marcus’s classmates.

Tarell Alvin McCraney is young. But his imagination is sophisticated. If these plays are any indication, he will be an important American playwright.

The Brother/Sister Plays. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Part 1: In The Red and Brown Water, directed by Tina Landau. Part 2: The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, directed by Robert O’Hara. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (between Astor Place and East 4th Street) New York City. 212-967-7555. Opened November 17, 2009; Closes December 20, 2009.

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