BAY AREA ARTS: The Brother/Sister Plays

This fall, three Bay Area theatres joined forces—and resources—to co-produce the incredible Brother/Sister trilogy of plays written by the incredibly gifted Tarell Alvin McCraney.
McCraney’s reputation as one of the “hottest” “emerging” American playwrights only begins to do justice to his skill and depth of vision, and the decision on the part of A.C.T., Marin Theatre, and the Magic to bring the trilogy to the Bay Area allowed audiences here to see why.  McCraney grew up in the housing projects of Liberty City in Miami-Dade County and describes his work as an attempt to bring forward the theatricality of that landscape into theaters unused to experiencing it.  That pursuit occurs on a number of fronts. For one, it means creating plays that feature the complex and intimate relations of men of color, as lovers and brothers to each other and to a wider network of kin.  It is an attempt to render what McCraney calls a “Chekhovian equivalent in the projects.”  Additionally, that task meant animating the deep spiritual history of African people in the Americas, particularly their dynamic reuse of Yoruba cosmology whose central orishas—Ogun, Eshu, Oba, Oshun, and more—are artfully reused once more as the propelling forces behind the central characters of McCraney’s plays.  Finally, McCraney’s brand of theatricality emphasizes the centrality of story-telling in African and African-American performance, what a certain German theatre director named Bertolt Brecht would have called the “epic” potential of the theatre.  McCraney’s characters simultaneously embody and narrate their stories, speaking of themselves in the third person as they enact first person gesture and movement, embodying a present moment while simultaneously lending the retrospective stance of a story teller who knows how it will end.  For audiences of Word for Word or comparable theater experiments, the effect is similar to a theater of literary adaptation.  But by combining the different epic conventions integral to a varied array of cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic spheres, McCraney devises theatrical events all his own.
It was no mean feat for these three theaters to coordinate schedules, subscriptions, and ticketing to be sure that Bay Area audience members could see these events; indeed, the box office managers of every theater were going crazy to pull it off. But the decision to commit to a series of theatre experiments with fellow spectators who made that commitment together was also central to the “epic” experience of these plays.  It was also a kind of mutually sustaining collaboration between three Bay Area institutions where, with effort, all boats rise.