What we’ve learned from … Tarell Alvin McCraney

Anthony Welsh as Elegba in Bijan Sheibani’s revival of The Brothers Size at the Young Vic, 2018. Photograph © Marc Brenner

In our digital drama club with older LGBTQ + people, we often look at work by queer dramatists to help us all boost our writing and performance skills. This is what we learned when we looked at a speech from The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

1 When the lights come up at the beginning of The Brothers Size, there are three Black men in the space. Throughout this opening invocation, one is grunting with the effort of work; one is in the grip of a bad dream; the third is singing in gospel tones about the roughness of the road. In the next couple of scenes we learn who they are and how they are related to each other. 

Ogun Henri Size is a car mechanic in his late 20s – that’s who was working; his younger brother Oshoosi has recently been released on parole from prison – that’s who was dreaming; and Elegba, around the same age as Ogun, is Oshoosi’s friend from jail – that’s who was singing. 

Ogun is the classically responsible older brother, providing Oshoosi with a place to live and a job in the car repair business he has built. But he has no time for his brother’s daydreams about a car of his own or the freedom it represents. 

Elegba offers a different version of fraternity. Where Ogun is all business in the opening scene, trying to rouse his brother from sleep to go to work (“Get yo ass up … Seek yo ass into that truck in five minutes”), Elegba arrives in the second complimenting Oshoosi on his singing voice (“I was born a choirboy. But you? You a siren.”). And while Ogun tries to use his business to provide his brother with a way to make a living, Elegba heads off to his cousin’s dump to find the car that he knows Oshoosi has been yearning for. As he reminds Oshoosi – and Oshoosi agrees – their bond was almost fraternal: “We was like brothers … Brothers in need.”

When two characters are struggling for the soul of a third, they must at some point face off against each other. It’s what thinkers about story-telling call an ‘obligatory scene’ – a moment we have learned to expect through our exposure to all kinds of narrative since childhood. Act II Scene Three is that scene, when the older brother and the brother in need who have been circling each other up to now finally go head to head over the destiny of their younger charge.

2 At the beginning of the scene, early in the morning, Ogun discovers Elegba outside the house, calling to Oshoosi through his bedroom window (Elegba may have dubbed Oshoosi a Siren at the beginning of the play but it is Elegba himself who is the real spirit of temptation here). Oshoosi is still asleep inside after a night out with Elegba in the car his friend found and his brother fixed up for him. Elegba wants to speak to Oshoosi, Ogun is determined he won’t. Their exchanges are stubborn, testy, there’s precious little goodwill. But after several minutes of tussling, it is Elegba who asks the crucial question that unlocks the rest of the scene: “How come you never like me, Size Number One?” And when Ogun responds with more hostility, rooted in fear for his brother (“Elegba, you trying to pull some bullshit?”), Elegba tells this story about how Oshoosi suffered when he first arrived in prison. Like all the best obligatory scenes, this one unravels in utterly unpredictable ways.

3 You can look at Elegba’s speech as a tale in three ‘acts’. In the first, he begins by setting the scene, depicting the quiet strength Oshoosi put on display when he first arrived in jail, and recalling the way he was always singing to himself, with that voice that has been on his mind ever since. And then come those five incredible words: “Most beautiful man ever seen.”

Nothing like this has been said in the previous 70 or so minutes. Elegba has complimented Oshoosi’s singing (“You sing … and the angels stop humming”). Ogun has positively assessed the car Elegba found in his cousin’s dump (“That car in good shape”). Oshoosi has praised his brother’s work on the car (“I love what you did to the ride, man”). There have even been hints about the nature of Oshoosi’s and Elegba’s relationship in jail. But none of the men has said anything as powerful or direct as this.

This is what a story-theorist might call the speech’s ‘inciting incident’ – the event that gets the story up on its feet and hints at how it might turn out. (You could even make a case for those five words setting in motion all the action of the play, both what we have already seen and what is to come.)

Then the turn that signals the end of the first act arrives over the course of the next few lines, as Elegba describes how Oshoosi’s quiet strength was suddenly displaced one night by grief at the pain of being separated from his older brother. The feeling was so primal that this grown man was wailing the abbreviated names they had for each other in childhood: “Og … come for Shoosi now …”

4 The second act of the speech recounts the entire prison’s response to Oshoosi’s grief. Elegba’s first thought is fear for the new arrival: “Oh hell they gone get him for that. They gone hurt him for being so soft.” But that is not what happens at all. The way Elegba tells it, the prisoners and even the guards recognise they “can’t mock no man in that much earthly pain”. But it’s not just that they don’t judge him: it’s much deeper than that. Oshoosi’s pain becomes everyone’s pain: “He cry out and, hell, he make us all miss our brothers, The ones we ain’t neva even have.”

Because second acts usually occupy the majority of the material in a conventional three-act structure, story-theorists will tell you that they generally divide in two, either side of a midpoint that marks a significant shift in the story. Which is what you could say happens happens right here, in the middle of this speech.

Now that Oshoosi’s grief is resonating with all the losses that all the prisoners and all the guards have experienced themselves, the moment begins to transform. This is no longer a cell, a wing, a jail: it’s as if this new inmate is not grieving at being separated from his brother – he is weeping beside his grave. And it is the figurative language that enacts this metamorphosis. There are pastors calling on Jesus. There are the guards respectfully observing the passage of coffin. And there is Oshoosi’s voice ringing out over everything like the tolling of a funeral bell, until he is gradually reduced to a whisper as the curtain comes down on the second act of the speech.

Sope Dirisu (left) as Ogun and Jonathan Ajayi as Oshoosi in Bijan Sheibani’s revival of The Brothers Size at the Young Vic in 2018. © Marc Brenner

5 The speech’s final act recounts how Elegba makes a decision that will have terrible consequences for Oshoosi, for Ogun and for Elegba himself. This is the climax of the speech that harks back to its inciting incident (“Most beautiful man ever seen”) but pushes it towards its unforeseen resolution – not focused on Oshoosi but on Oshoosi’s brother. “I look down at my feet, say I got to meet him … That brother … that brother that make a man get on his knees and cry out for That brother!”

This is why (he says) he has come to Ogun’s Carshack. Not because he wants to tempt Oshoosi away from his older brother (“I can’t never be his brother like you his brother”). But because he needs to meet the man who could have inspired the grief that one night briefly transformed an entire jailhouse.

6 The exchange after this speech contains further painful revelation – this time about how Ogun dealt with the enforced separation from his younger brother. And it’s a revelation that further complicates Ogun’s relationship with the man who seems to have in some way supplanted him during Oshoosi’s two-year sentence.

Of course, whether Elegba’s account of why he has come to find the brothers is wholly to be trusted remains to be seen (after all, the character shares his name with the trickster god of the Yoruba religion, which is the source of all the names in the piece).

But even as Ogun is wrestling with everything he has just heard (and everything it all represents), Elegba reveals why he came calling for Oshoosi at the top of the scene in the first place – because something happened the night before that means the younger brother is now in terrible danger. It’s that revelation that propels the drama itself into its final act as surely, as brutally, as shockingly as a car pushed over off the road buckles and breaks all the way down a barren hillside.

• As well as identifying lessons from work by queer dramatists in our free weekly workshops with older LGBTQ+ people, we also share stories, play improv games, write about our experiences and hone our performance skills. If you would like to know more, please email our participation producer, Daniel. No writing or performing experience is necessary!

Martin Moriarty
22 July 2020