Great class projects earn A’s, praise, a “Good Job!” sticker, if your teacher obliges. But coursework, no matter how excellent, rarely merits near-simultaneous play openings in New York and London. Newly minted MFA playwright Tarell McCraney must have done his homework. The Brothers Size, which he began as a drama-school assignment two years ago, started preview performances this week at the Public Theater. A separate production opens at London’s Young Vic on November 8. And the Public’s version will soon move to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre.
McCraney has a tough, moving, lyrical style, but lyricism alone doesn’t make an impressive résumé, especially for a 27-year-old. The playwright can credit a measure of his success to the Under the Radar Festival and producer Mark Russell, who gave the production a slot last January—which McCraney describes as “actually kind of a miracle.” The year before, Russell had traveled to Yale to give a talk, and a venturesome theater-management student handed him the Brothers Size script. “You have to know about this artist,” he told Russell. Russell apparently agreed. Though it meant programming an utter unknown—students are way, way under the radar—he booked the play, with the Foundry Theatre serving as the show’s producer.
“Actually,” says Russell, “it was a no-brainer.” The piece concerns the relationship between two brothers: Ogun, a mechanic, and Oshoosi, a very recent ex-con; they are at once blue-collar American mortals and West African deities. When Elegba, Oshoosi’s prison mate, arrives, he threatens the brothers’ fragile stasis. The script seduced Russell, who praises its “muscular writing” and “command of stagecraft.” Russell mounted the McCraney play with its original director and actors, explaining: “I’m very interested in seeing works developed with the people he was sort of writing the words for. We could have done the show in three or four years when he was famous and put Denzel Washington in it, but I wanted to see it with these guys.” So did sell-out crowds at UTR. In its review, The New York Times cheered the “beautiful music of a new voice.” Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis heard that music, too. The production at UTR, which he saw three times, convinced him to schedule The Brothers Size in his regular season and develop the two other plays in McCraney’s brother/sister trilogy, of which The Brothers Size is a part.
At rehearsal in the Public’s Shiva Theater, the cast and crew luxuriate in the long process afforded them. During scenes, everyone concentrates fiercely. On breaks, the space whirs with amity and shared jokes. The actors run lines in cockney accents, director Tea Alagic doles out Ricola lozenges, someone lobbies for a bubble-blowing machine. McCraney says that working again with the Yale crowd is “more than a luxury—it’s a blessing. This is a much longer journey than the week and a half we had to put it up at Yale two Novembers ago.”
A professional debut at the Public is doubtless exciting, but daunting, too. Early success often inspires jealousy and backbiting. McCraney, however, describes his classmates and fellow playwrights as “more than supportive, overcompensatingly generous.” And Russell says, “If anyone can handle this kind of attention, McCraney can. He’s articulate and centered, very smart and mature as an artist.”
Russell is well equipped to judge: When he served as artistic director of P.S. 122, he helped launch the careers of John Leguizamo, Danny Hoch, and Sarah Jones. Now, as head of UTR, he’s promoted shows such as the Civilians’ Gone Missing, Cynthia Hopkins’s Accidental Nostalgia, and the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s No Dice, soon to open at Soho Rep. Eustis says he hopes to produce more UTR works at the Public: “UTR is proving to be a wonderful way to cross-pollinate work with our conventional subscription season.” Trendspotters should mark their calendars for the 2008 festival, January 9 through 20, where they might see the next The Brothers Size. Russell offers a tease: “A group from Australia at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, a thing by Stan’s Café at the World Financial Center, and something in situ at Veselka.” Tasty.