Smile Politely

Brother to brother

This week, an exciting new experiment in theatre has begun in Champaign-Urbana.  The University of Illinois’ Theatre Program at The Krannert Center has begun a summer outreach program, linking their students to professional and emerging theatrical troops in the Chicago area. The planned experiment will bring new and established troops to the C-U area for the summer to work with students and provide our community with new and unique theatrical events. The first group involved in this collaboration is The Definition Theatre Company, an exciting new company composed of U of I theatre alumni Aurora Adachi-Winter, Kelson Michael McAuliffe, Jessica Dean Turner, Julian Parker, Tyrone Phillips, and Mercedes White. The troop’s mission is “to create art that reflects the ever-changing face of America through educating urban communities and performing contemporary and classical works featuring a multiethnic core company of actors.”  

One of the first works to gain attention for the troop in Chicago is a mesmerizing evening of inventive storytelling by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney entitled The Brothers Size. The play is a ninety-minute-long witty and heartfelt theatrical event using traditional storytelling, rhythm, dance, and dreamlike poetic imagery to tell the story of two tentatively connected brothers. Ogun Size is a hard-working blue collar African-American who takes in his recently paroled brother, Oshoosi. The pair grudgingly negotiate a household as Ogun hawkishly monitors his brother’s lawful behavior, while constantly berating him for his past incarceration; meanwhile Oshoosi vacillates between a young man desperately trying to walk the straight and narrow, and a young man succumbing to his appetites and the temptations presented by his former prison-mate, Elegba. Using a script that dances effortlessly between comedy and tragedy, McCraney’s play examines the nature of brotherhood, freedom, and masculine racial identity in a Southern bayou community. Under the skillful direction of Kathleen F. Conlin, this is an evening of theatre not to be missed!

With a barebones production using an empty stage with minimal props and a series of well-utilized crates, atmospheric lighting and sound design (courtesy of Michelle E. Benda and Joshua Wilcox), and understated costuming by Jessica Dean Turner, the play relies on the talent of its small acting ensemble to tell the tale. Fortunately, a trio of Definition actors —Tyrone Phillips, Julian Parker, and Mercedes White —are more than up for the challenges of the piece. Phillips’ Ogun is a proud young man dutifully caring for his younger brother and tormented by how his efforts have resulted in a convicted criminal. Phillips gives his character a tired, proud dignity and a loving sense of playfulness and humor. As the younger brother, Oshoosi, Parker is a charming rogue, playfully avoiding work and adult responsibility in one moment, while desperately trying to make amends with his beloved brother and cope with the nightmare of his incarceration in the next. Parker is a physical actor, using his body to convey emotion and seduce us with every gesture into thinking his character may really put his past behind him.

The character of Elegba could come across as a stereotypical heavy in less competent hands, but White — in a cross-gender casting that embodies the troops’ vision of a blurred, pluralistic society — is a triumph as the charming and manipulative parolee. Her lyrical voice and easy smile make us instantly like Elegba, though our best instincts might warn against it. This play is an emotional love triangle about brotherhood at its core: birth brother versus prison brother for the soul of their younger charge, and White’s steady gaze and easy manner make the stakes of this triangle understandably high. Under Conlin’s direction, this trio effortlessly tells this covertly dense tale with ease and pathos. The play uses humor to good effect, and the emotional journey of these brothers will leave many in tears as they struggle to gain and maintain the connection they both so desperately desire. This is a tale which uses both traditional scenes and experimental and tribal storytelling to convey its messages. The dream imagery is arresting and vividly conveyed by the actors’ expressions and the use of music throughout gives a light touch to the darker moments of the tale. It’s is a unique evening of theatre, and I highly recommend you attend it this summer!

Definition Theatre Company’s production of The Brothers Size continues through June 14th, presented in tandem with June’s New Short Play Festival. Visit the Krannert website for more information and ticket reservations.

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