To say Tarell Alvin McCraney is masterful at articulating black male coming-of-age stories in America would be an understatement. His play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (now better known as the 2017 Academy Award-winning screenplay Moonlight) gave us a lens onto a black boy’s reckoning with emotional abandonment and his burgeoning sexuality in the projects of Miami, while McCraney’s Tony-nominated Choir Boy explored both the sacred and secular as music became a metaphor for freedom. Similarly, the writer and producer’s current series, OWN’s David Makes Man, bridges the gap between this world and the next as its protagonist navigates double-consciousness and trauma that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.
But this theme is perhaps most poignant in one of McCraney’s earliest works, The Brothers Size, now in revival as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where the writer is an ensemble member. A companion piece to Moonlight, The Brothers Size reimagines the Yoruban orishas Ogun, Oshoosi and Elegba as a trio of young men—two of them brothers—reacting to the prison industrial complex and the tenuousness of life under its threat. On stage, McCraney’s heroes are comical, endearing, empathetic and ultimately, tragic, as the limitations of life after incarceration prove as threatening as life within.
Specifically intended for younger audiences with a guide and synopsis written by the company’s teaching artists, The Brothers Size carries weighted resonance to the Chicagoland-based-students—predominantly of color—venturing to the Steppenwolf to see the play, based in large part on McCraney’s own life.
“I wanted to explore what it meant to be a part of the American Dream,” the playwright explains in the guide. “I was being launched out into the world with this college degree into a place of milk and honey, and yet I felt a great responsibility to take care of my younger brother, who was incarcerated. I felt a great responsibility to make sure the generational poverty that had plagued us all our lives didn’t consume us. And I knew that no amount of degree or professional training was going to shield me from the onslaught of racism and patriarchy that were going to find me as a black person.”
With powerful and poignant performances from the three-man ensemble of Manny Buckley (Ogun), Patrick Agada (Oshoosi) and Rashaad Hall (Elegba) an eternal question is once again asked and painfully answered: Am I my brother’s keeper?
The Brothers Size is directed by Monty Cole and is in production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre through Oct. 19. Tickets are available on their website.