Having a big, fat dick, a symbol of prowess and virility, presents a considerable advantage in our phallus-obsessed, patriarchal culture. But when we’re talking about a disempowered community that is rarely championed for anything other than physical prowess, the generalization only perpetuates a view that is limiting and even degrading.
Since this stereotype remains so pervasive, it’s no wonder that the title of Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s award-winning play The Brothers Size conjures images of big black dicks. But in seeing the play (at the Eureka Theatre, through Oct. 15), it becomes clear that its story goes much deeper (and that I need to get my mind out of the gutter).
While it’s safe to assume that the title is a play on the cliche, the queer, African-American dramatist who wrote it is mostly referring to the play’s sibling characters’ last name. Here McCraney is less interested in talking about sex or sexuality than examining the even bigger, life-threatening problems — poverty, violence, civil rights, and police brutality — that continue to compromise the lives of black men, particularly in the South. Since he’s most familiar with the Louisiana bayou area, where he grew up, he sets his play there.
The middle installment of what’s come to be known as The Brother/Sister Plays, bookended by In The Red and Brown Water and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, narratively independent The Brothers Size picks up after the freewheeling Oshooshi Size (Gabriel Christian)’s release from prison, after serving time for a petty crime. He is staying with his big brother, Ogun Size (Lakeidrick S. Wimberly), a hardworking auto mechanic.
The set, constructed of little more than a tire swing, stack of tires, entryway covered in hanging moss, wooden bench and chain-link fence, doubles as both Ogun’s ramshackle house and garage. Because the props are so few, it’s sometimes helpful when the actors speak their stage directions, such as “Ogun comes from under the car,” before performing the action. Other times, when actors spell out their change of emotion before delivering lines or yell, “Beep!” to signify a car honking outside, the technique seems pointless. Why McCraney wrote the dialog in this way is unclear, but it all seems unnecessarily self-conscious and gimmicky.
But back to the story. Ogun has made it his business to protect his baby brother. He wants to put the breaks on his life of crime by driving him to work at his garage. Not if Elegba (Julian Green), Oshoosi’s former prison-mate and lover, has his way.
To Ogun’s disappointment, Elegba seems to bring out the worst in Oshoosi, encouraging his criminal behavior. While Oshoosi and Elegba present as straight, constantly talking about banging broads, Ogun picks up on a spark between them, and he’s troubled by it.
Although we see Oshooshi and Elegba engaging in bromantic behavior — a light kiss, lingering touch, caress of the torso — it’s never clear whether they actually share romantic affection. It’s possible that Oshoosi confuses his brotherly love for Elegba, who took Ogun’s place in the slammer, for sexual interest. Or maybe Elegba is using sex as a weapon to control Oshoosi. It doesn’t help that every “encounter” they have onstage is as awkward as an adult film scene, featuring two straight characters who somehow end up getting busy. It’s unfortunate, though, that in the 2010’s our depictions of gay sexuality are still colored by so much confusion, discomfort and shamefulness. Where are the happy, well-adjusted gay couples?
But regardless of Elegba’s intentions or Ogun’s attempts to the contrary, the former, like a devil on Oshooshi’s shoulder, wins out. After buying Oshooshi a car, which gets him on the road to fulfilling his dream of driving down to Mexico, Elegba is back in the driver’s seat, metaphorically speaking, and easily manipulates his former prison pal into being his partner in crime.
Running afoul of the law in the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana is not difficult if you’re black, as the three characters attest in several scenes spent recounting the ongoing police harassment they face. They’re the oppressed minority, and the racist local sheriff, is only too eager to arrest them for any little thing, criminal or not.
With The Brothers Size, McCraney does an excellent job of depicting the impact of institutionalized racism on a trio of individuals through impactful dialog, imaginative Yoruba-inspired dance sequences and powerful musical moments, expertly performed by all three actors. Oshooshi actor Gabriel Christian’s masterful rendition of Otis Redding’s soul classic “Try a Little Tenderness” is an excellent example of this.
But McCraney might have opened more minds had he done more than just tease gay sexuality. Not to mention that the brief glimpses we do receive are only a narrow window into the dark side of gay culture: down-low hookups, prison sex and internalized and externalized homophobia.
Thankfully the playwright’s followup Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet explores the entire rainbow of gay sexuality in a far more comprehensive and meaningful way. The Brothers Size could have benefited greatly from this tactic.
The Brothers Size, through Oct. 15 at Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., TheRhino.org