By MARK BLANKENSHIP
If you listen to the Public Theater’s production of The Brother/Sister Plays in the right way, then you’ll hear several conversations at once.
First, the plays talk to each other. Tarell Alvin McCraney has written a trilogy, currently running in two sections at the Public, that depicts several generations in modern-day Louisiana. The plays share not only characters and settings, but also large questions about family, community, and sexuality.
They’re also steeped in the same influences, including the myths of West Africa’s Yoruba culture. McCraney threads each script with fantastical touches, so that actors break character to deliver their own stage directions, prophetic dreams come bursting to life, and simple movements evolve into dance.
Along with these overlaps, the Public’s productions, now in previews, add a conversation between directors. Tina Landau helms Part I, In the Red and Brown Water, about a young girl’s coming-of-age. Meanwhile, Robert O’Hara steers Part II, which includes both The Brothers Size, about a fractious sibling relationship, and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, about a young boy facing adolescence.
The directors have clears ideas about McCraney’s work, and they don’t always agree. Produced side by side, their interpretations ask audiences to consider how plays and directors interact.
Both productions premiered this spring at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre before moving to the Public, and they share actors and design elements. That helps them feel connected, even with two directors on board.
Landau and O’Hara, however, have never compared notes. “We decided not to talk to each other about what we’re doing,” O’Hara says. “We both have our visions of the plays, and since the plays already speak to each other, we didn’t need to worry about it.”
O’Hara wants to make the stories and characters recognizable to American audiences. “My production hones in on the human aspect of the plays,” he says. “To me, they’re not African plays. They’re African-American adaptations of African myths.” To that end, he keeps his actors grounded in their personal relationships, so that each moment feels emotionally urgent and authentic.
His approach may surprise audiences who remember the Public’s 2007 production of The Brothers Size. In that version, the director highlighted the play’s ritualistic elements: Actors had painted faces and were almost always shirtless; lines of dialogue were punctuated by an onstage musician; and the set was nothing but a pile of rocks.
O’Hara remembers that production. “The play I saw told me a beautiful story, but it left me with tons of questions about the relationships and the people,” he says. “For me, it wasn’t about mythological relationships. I wanted real people.”
Landau, who will direct all three plays for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre early next year, wants to blend reality and mythology. “The plays live in this hybrid realm between prose and poetry,” she says. “When you add elements that are too literal, they suffocate.”
That hybrid style demands special performers: “What’s required of these actors is so extreme,” Landau says. “They have to have a real honesty in their characters, but they also have to have a real theatrical bravura.”
The actors also need to feel comfortable interacting with the audience, since the plays make constant asides. That’s another conversation in the show, and both directors agree that the Public’s intimate Anspacher space, which puts patrons on three sides of the stage, is the perfect place to have it.
“If the actors get a laugh from the right side of the house, maybe they play the next moment even more to that side,” Landau says. “It’s like jazz. You have to riff off what the audience is giving you.”
To succeed in the Anspacher, the directors had to restage most of the work they did at the McCarter, which has a large proscenium stage. For instance, since actors now have audiences behind them during almost every moment, they have to speak at a different volume.
This conversation—between the production and the space itself—is just as crucial to The Brother/Sister Plays as all the others. “Every theatre is different,” O’Hara says. “If you take what you had on another stage and try to move it onto this one, you’ll lose.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor