Smile Politely

The Brothers Size returns to Champaign-Urbana

In 2007, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play The Brothers Size had its New York debut as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. He was a virtual unknown at the time, a third-year grad student at Yale, but it was clear to those who saw his play that he wouldn’t stay under the radar for very long. Jason Zinoman said, in his New York Times review, “It’s Mr. McCraney’s soulful monologues that provide the real harmony. Listen closely, and you might hear that thrilling sound that is one of the main reasons we go to the theater, that beautiful music of a new voice.”

Following that 2007 festival introduction (and a simultaneous debut at London’s Young Vic), the play was restaged in 2009 — again at the Public — as the second act of The Brother/Sister Plays, an interwoven trio of stories rooted in West African folklore and transplanted to modern(ish) Louisiana. Of this production, the venerable Times theatre critic Ben Brantley said that McCraney’s work was “too good to be perfect,” which is perhaps the greatest compliment a work of live theatre can receive. Brantley spoke of McCraney’s audacity and reach, marveling at his storytelling prowess and pointing out that the young playwright (29 at the time) was mentored by August Wilson. When the play moved to Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010, Time Out Chicago called the production a “landmark event,” and the Chicago Sun-Times proclaimed it “glorious on all counts.”

On April 5th, 2012, this monumental work landed in our own Champaign-Urbana theatre community when a handful of U of I students staged a production in the Armory Free Theatre. Tyrone Phillips, Julian Parker, and Mercedes White played the characters of Ogun, Oshoosi, and Elegba, respectively, and their work in that play left a lasting impression. This was a homegrown effort, borne of their love of the text and produced with assistance from a hand-picked group of designers. Directing the three actors in this venture was Kathleen Conlin, an esteemed director and Bernard Hewitt Chair in Directing at the University.

The production, which lasted all of a weekend, won raves from those who saw it. Like so many other passion projects at the Armory, it was an experience that was overlooked by many but vehemently, ecstatically embraced by the lucky few who shared that small, dimly-lit space.

At the time, I was working on a one-year contract with Inner Voices Social Issues Theatre group at U of I. I mention this morsel of personal information for a couple of reasons, the first being that Inner Voices held all of its rehearsals in the Armory. Therefore, it occurs to me now that, as I packed up my heavy bookbag each night and helped straighten chairs after rehearsing with Inner Voices, I was completely unaware of the fact that I was clearing the floor for the cast of a powerful piece of drama.

The other reason I bring up my work at the Armory is J.W. Morrissette, who is well-known in local theatre circles and far, far beyond. An extremely smart and talented actor and director, Morrissette has taught Acting, Directing, and Introduction to Theatre at the University of Illinois and chaired the Theatre Studies Program. In short, when Morrissette sends you an e-mail telling you (all of you, every last one, whoever has eyeballs on the message) to get your butt to a show at the Armory, you know it’s important. I received such an e-mail from Morrissette when The Brothers Size was in the Armory, and I still regret that I wasn’t able to see it for myself.

When I reached out to Morrissette this week, asking him to try to summon what it was that so moved him about that student production, he replied with this:

“What impressed me most about the Armory Free Theatre production of The Brothers Size was the sheer intensity of the storytelling and skill with which it was told. The actors (and director) were seemingly at the top of their game when it came to their crafts and their work became so crystallized, so incredibly intense that it was a very moving experience to witness. It stood as a piece of work that reminded me why I love watching live performance and what amazing accomplishments can be achieved when talent meets with opportunity.”

Following the production in the Armory, the cast (along with fellow actors and classmates Aurora Adachi-Winter, Kelson Michael McAuliffe, and Jessica Dean Turner) graduated and founded a theatre company of their own in Chicago. Calling their Kickstarter-funded venture Definition Theatre Company, they proceeded with the following mission statement:

The aim of Definition Theatre Company is to create art that reflects the ever-changing face of America through educating urban communities and performing contemporary and classical theatrical works featuring a multiethnic core company of actors.

DTC is in the search of language-driven, diverse ensemble-based pieces that aim to expand the boundaries of conventional theatre.

In June of 2012, Definition Theatre Company’s inaugural production was, fittingly, a production of The Brothers Size. Again directed by Kathleen Conlin and again starring Phillips, Parker, and White, the play held residence for three weekends at The Alley Stage on North Broadway in Chicago. And now, fortunately for those of us in C-U, Definition Theatre Company will bring its now lived-in, battle-tested production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s absorbing play back for a special summer engagement beginning May 29. For two weeks, these distinguished alumni and their passion will hold court in Krannert Center’s Studio Theatre.

All performances of The Brothers Size will begin at 7:30 p.m., and there will be post-show talkback sessions on May 29th and 31st with dramaturg Kyle Thomas and on June 5th and 7th with dramaturg Zack Ross.

As previously reported by SP’s Katie Baldwin Prosise, the Definition Theatre event will also feature a Festival of New Short Plays featuring a new work by Tarell Alvin McCraney and several others. Selected plays include:

Evening News by Aaron Carter
Seward, Kansas by Matthew-Lee Erlbach
Pigeons, Sharks, and Vixens by Matthew-Lee Erlbach
Blackie’s Funeral by Paco Jose Madden
Stepping Out by Damir Konjicija and Leah Williams
A Taurian Tale… by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Just Suppose by Tucker Rafferty
The Space Behind Your Heart by Steven Simoncic

The New Short Play Festival will be held Wednesday, June 11th, through Saturday, June 14th, at 7:30 p.m. and will include a Friday, June 13th performance at 10 p.m.

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