The Brothers Size

Namir Smallwood and James A. Williams in “The Brothers Size” at the Guthrie. Photo: Michal Daniel.

Contemporary theatre has a wide range of potential – to break new artistic ground, to offer pointed social commentary, to provide audiences a window into the lives of others. The Brothers Size, performed in the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, tries to do all three. But while the play’s vague nods to Yoruba-inspired mythology¹ do not demonstrate any large-scale artistic innovation, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has done wonders with the small details of people and relationships.

The Brothers Size centers around Oshoosi Size (Namir Smallwood), who has recently returned from prison to live with his older brother, Ogun (James A. Williams). In one sense, Oshoosi’s story is about coming of age, learning to bear the burden of responsibility that stems from the love and obligation of family.

In another sense, however, Oshoosi is a changed and haunted man. His short prison sense has infected him with a yearning for freedom without giving him any tools for how to attain it. In his interactions with Elegba (Gavin Lawrence), a friend from prison, Oshoosi sees the promise of an easy escape, a good life that Ogun’s work ethic and car-shop grease stains cannot compete with.

Each of the three characters is performed with almost brutal compassion. In every moment of anger, resentment, resignation or discomfort, the skill of the playwright, actors, and director Marion McClinton combine to paint a vivid picture of the forces that shape and entrap each man. Freedom, for these three, is always visible and always elusive: whether hemmed in by physical bars, financial and psychological obligations, or fear of a cold legal system, each character operates in a world with very few options. Even women seem to represent a distant island which has drifted just beyond reach.

Each man also walks a thin line between what can and cannot be said – while McCraney’s eloquent monologues represent some of the most poetic moments of the play, they are not always the most revealing. The actors, speaking their stage directions aloud, make the most out of every action. Those moments outside of the dialogue – a quiet return to work, a bite of food, the slam of a door – speak volumes about the limits of expression.

The playwright describes The Brothers Size as an exploration of “Black Masculinity and the notion of Brother Hood.” While the play is about black men connected by bonds of literal or figurative brotherhood, it does not offer any over-arching conclusions or commentary about the condition of black men in or out of prison. In that respect, Size may be more ambitious than it can truly live up to – though this might ultimately be a good thing, as any grand conclusion reached in a 90-minute play would have to be a superficial one.

However, there is dramatic power in the play’s nuanced look at individual lives and relationships as they are subjected to distant and uncontrollable social forces. The government, the law, racism, poverty – all of these factors are omnipresent in the characters’ lives and critical to our understanding of the play. But what drives The Brothers Size, and what we feel for in the end, is the struggle of each individual as he each strikes his own balance between love, work, dreams and harsh reality in a continuous quest for an ever-elusive sense of freedom.

¹McCraney has borrowed some names from the Yoruba tradition: Oshoosi is a god of the hunt, Ogun is a warrior and the patron saint of smiths, and Elegba is a chaos spirit whose tricks often teach valuable lessons to his “victims.” This might have been a valuable note to include in the program, as it sheds a different sort of light on the dynamics between the three characters.

The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Presented by Pillsbury House Theatre and the Mount Curve Company at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis, September 7-29, 2012. Tickets $18-22. Information at 612-377-2224 or

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