Thanks to works like The Coast of Utopia and The Norman Conquests, three-part theater series are in vogue right now. Uptown, Horton Foote’s The Orphan’s Home Cycle (nine plays edited into three evenings) is just gearing up at Signature Theater Company; and downtown, The Public Theater is wrapping up the run of a new trilogy (three plays in two evenings) by the young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. Called The Brother/Sister Plays, these three one-act drama are set in the “distant present” down in San Pere, Louisiana. McCraney renders this world vividly in his dialog and language: the vernacular is distinct but expressive; and the lives portrayed are lower class but filled with emotion and vitality.
McCraney’s style meshes with the frankness of the characters who tend to speak stage directions to the audience (“Enter Shua — Kango pulled way low” or “Marcus stares after Ogun Size and watches to make sure he gets home safe. End of Play.”) This calls to mind the way the Elevator Repair Service staged Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury last year, with the actors on stage reading aloud authorial necessities of fiction. Like in that work—also written in a heavy southern tongue—this Brechtian technique works well in The Brother/Sister Plays, bringing us deeper into the minds of its characters.
Of the three plays, only the second one, The Brothers Size, feels like it could stand alone as an evening’s worth of theater. Despite the efforts of the 14-person ensemble, both In the Read and Brown Water and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet feel more like anecdotal addendums to the three-person chamber drama that is The Brothers Size. The bookending plays are interesting and engaging—not too mention vividly performed—even as they are elusive and occasionally frustrating. Adding to the lack of coherence is that Part 1 and Part 2 are staged by different directors. Tina Landau stages Part 1 as if the story of a young, female track star were a Greek Tragedy, and it doesn’t do the breezy portrait any favors. Part 2 is staged with more clarity (and simplicity) by Robert O’Hara, as he provides the The Brothers Size an appropriate austerity and gives Marcus (played by the delightful Andre Holland) a theatrical impact that the text only flirts with.
While not a masterpiece, The Brother/Sister Plays hold the stage—and they bristle with potential. Certainly the actors (especially Holland, Sterling K. Brown and Kianne Muschett) but also the playwright. (“Exit critic. Anticipating playwright’s next work. End of Review.”)
At the same time that the Public Theater is presenting this trilogy which puts a spotlight on the expressiveness of Southern vernacular, they also hosted a brief run of a new work that showcases another oral tradition: the lecture. Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult looks and sounds like a one-man show, but feels more like a secular social sermon or a piece of long form political oratory. Ostensibly, The Last Cargo Cult is about a trip to a remote Pacific Island with no currency, but it’s really about our own culture that’s all currency. To describe it too much is to ruin its effect. You might think a two-hour rant would sound dry or get boring fast, yet Daisey weaves his homily around a great yarn. Whether you call it a monologue or a travelogue, it’s a dizzying, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud ride. If Daisey returns with this show (and one gets the feeling he will) The Last Cargo Cult is well worth a listen.
Images: (top) Sterling K. Brown and Andre Holland in Marcus; or The Secret Of Sweet. (bottom) Production still from The Last Cargo Cult. Both photos by Joan Marcus.