The brilliance of ‘Brother/Sister’

There are at least two levels in just about every great piece of theater. On one level, we should believe the characters we’re seeing onstage are real. On another level, we’re fully aware of the fact that we’re watching a performance. Of course those people talking and walking onstage aren’t actually the characters they’re pretending to be.

Some theatrical productions even call attention to the fact that they’re theatrical productions. They put some distance between the audience and the world that the playwright has created. What’s truly wonderful is when a play succeeds on both levels. The actors seem to be saying, “You’re just watching a play,” but at the same time, they bring such honesty to their performances that we can’t help feeling like we’re slipping into their fictional sphere.

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays, now at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, is a superb example of this. It’s so stylized that it occasionally feels more like performance art than a traditional play. The actors say many of their stage directions aloud. Before they smile or cry, they often announce that they’re going to smile or cry. What could be more artificial than that? In many scenes, some actors stand off to the side of the action, waiting to make their entrances. They stand immobile, like marionettes awaiting a pull of the strings.

And yet, McCraney’s multigenerational saga features realistic characters (realistic but colorful), made all the more believable by director Tina Landau and her excellent cast. Despite all that artifice involving stage directions, you connect with these people and feel their emotions. And there’s also some magic in the air, a sense of ancient myths intertwining with the lives of these African-American characters in New Orleans.

The stage is almost bare, but it has a beautiful sort of starkness, the walls and floor painted like the interior of a vast cargo ship or maybe an artist’s paint-streaked loft space. (Kudos to set and costume designer James Schuette.) Just about the only props are buckets and barrels. When a set is this minimal, it allows a play to move swiftly from one imaginary place to another, but it also requires audience members to use more of their imagination. And this is one set of plays that really does engage our imagination.

The Brother/Sister Plays is a trilogy of three plays featuring many of the same characters. We’re told that we can see these plays in any order, but I recommend seeing them in chronological sequence. At Steppenwolf, the three plays are packaged in two programs. First comes the very good In the Red and Brown Water. Then comes a pair of somewhat shorter (and even better) plays: The Brothers Size and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. Together, they tell several tangled stories about an extended New Orleans clan, laced with sharp insights about the experiences of African-Americans in recent times. Sex, violence, brotherly love, sibling rivalry, prejudice, fate and dreams all play important parts in the stories.

After viewing the three plays in one marathon day, I felt their cumulative power as Marcus reached its final scene with the spoken stage directions “End of play.” The entire ensemble cast is great, and when audience members rose for a standing ovation at the end of the trilogy, it truly felt as if the actors, playwright and director had earned it.

(Steppenwolf photo by Callie Lipkin.)

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