Theatre ReviewsTom Williams

The Brother/Sister Plays

In The Red And Brown Water

the brother/sister plays by tarell alvin mccraney

The Brothers Size

Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet

By Tarell Alvin McCraney

Directed by Tina Landau

At Steppenwolf Theatre’s Upstairs Theatre

Stylistic ambitious new saga unfolds in a trilogy by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Steppenwolf Theatre presents an ambitious and innovative trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays under the unique direction/collaboration of Tina Landau and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. These three distinct work are now playing in repertory and I was able to see them in their chronological order with In the Red and Brown Water, followed by The Brothers Size  and ending with Marcus: Or the Secret of Sweet.

the brother/sister plays by tarell alvin mccraney

While each of the three plays are distinct works with common themes, characters, and locations spanning three generations of African-Americans from a bayou community of Louisiana set in what playwright McCraney refers to as “distant present.”  These works are strongly influenced by lively Afro-Caribbean folklore with  Yoruban mythology that are presented with ample use of dance, drum beats, Gospel songs and avante-garde movements and experimental forms of story-theater including the irritating over use of the actors speaking the stage directions.

the brother/sister plays by tarell alvin mccraney

Example: Oya (to the audience) Oya smiles at Egungun and says to him “Hello,” … Oya exits. All of the above was spoken aloud. Why?  To remind us that we are hearing a story? We know that and the constant use of that technique undermine, even ridicules, the appreciation of the story.  I did find the underscoring with movement, dance, drums and singing by the entire cast in the first work-In the Red and Brown Water- quite effective. I’d advise cutting much of the spoken stage directions as a needless distraction.

In the Red and Brown Water, the bayou community is introduced complete with Yoruban names as we meet the likable Oya (Alana Arenas) as she struggles with a life altering decision–to take a track scholarship or stay home with her dying mother. This innovative work has been described as a theatrical poem or a “choreo-poem”–part dance piece, part song written as a ‘dream state.’  We meet the key members of Olya’s community and we witness her path to womanhood.

The Brothers Size is presented with more clarity as it focuses on Oshooshi Size (the spirited Phillip James Brannon) after he is released from jail. He works for his brother, Ogun Size (K. Todd Freeman). Oshoosi Size is torn between his brother and his best friend Elegba (Genn Davis) as a tug of war results. This emotionally powerful work is an honest look at the complex bonds of brotherhood.

Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet finds Marcus (terrific work by Glenn Davis), a sixteen year old struggling with his sexual identify while uncovering the mysterious secrets of his family’s past. This is a unique coming-of-age story that blends African folklore and community standards. This piece could use a cut of about 15 minutes to tighten it and give it more power.

After seeing all three plays in one day, let me state that director Tina Landau and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney have a worthy trilogy that once they cut some of the gimmicks (like the over use of spoken stage directions) and once they tighten the focus of In the Red and Brown Water, they’ll have a theatrical gem of a trilogy. As they now play, each show has  moments of engaging theatre. Tarell Alvin McCraney is an emerging playwright with a refreshing take on storytelling His plays are enticing.


Tom Williams

Jeff Recommended

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago,IL, call 312-335-1650,, tickets $20 – $70, the three plays are performed in repertory call for specific details, running time varies, Tuesdays thru Sundays at 7:30 with Saturday & Sundays matinees at 3 pm.

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