TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY – (1570 words)
For THE STAGE, 2007
1) WHY DID YOU WRITE THE BROTHERS SIZE
It was something I was inspired to do by some African myths that I had read and also another play I had read about some brothers. I decided I wanted to write something about what it means to be a brother.
2) WHERE ARE YOU FROM
Miami Florida. My mother and my father are both from Miama – my Dad’s family are from the Caribbean and my mother’s family are from Georgia.
3) WHEN DID YOU WRITE THE PLAY
In 2003. I wrote the first draft in my first year at Yale. It came quickly.
I write pretty fast. But I’m always shifting and changing so it’s never finished.
4) WHAT STARTED YOU OFF IN THE THEATRE
I’ve always been around the theatre, I’ve been an actor. I just happened to write it after doing a workshop with Peter Brook in Chicago .
5) HOW DID THAT HAPPEN
I auditioned for a show called The Suit , Le Costume; they were going to do the American version of it. And they decided not to but I was working with them on that production. Then two years ago he sent for me to do another workshop on a play called Tierno Bokar. I don’t know what it was that they liked about me. I auditioned my last year in undergraduate school so I was very insecure about acting. But they seemed to like what I was doing.
I like the way the work is. It’s very honest, it’s very hard work which is very much like this play. There’s nothing on stage to protect you or hide behind. There’s no set, there’s no artifice. All there is is the actors and their audience and the words. They have to create everything that you need which is the most exciting, the most thrilling kind of theatre but it’s also very difficult in an age where we’re used to carousels spinning, light shows and spectacular spectacles.
6) WHAT ARE YOUR INFLUENCES
The show is very much an American piece in that it has deep roots in western theatre and deep roots in African-American culture and the way in which we tell stories. It’s a very jazz type piece. But we did a workshop the other day with the Theatre Royal in Plymouth with young people, and they said we read this play and said, `we really understand it’. There’s a rhythmn to it. And I said to myself how does that keep happening. No matter where I go round the world, even if people say they don’t understand the rhyhthm or how it’s supposed to go, they feel the rhythmn and relate to these brothers. We all have a person in our lives who for better or for worse, we’re tethered to, we have a bond with. And that bond has gotten us through very difficult times in our lives. And in this play, at the root of it is, no matter what the
machinations of the play, they know what it’s like to be so close, blood related or friend related to someone and they’ve gone through these trials together and that bond, that closeness has gotten them through.
Every moment has to be played fresh and new every time. Nelson Mandela describes what artists do as two men sitting between a fire for a while and when they get up, they know each other better. And that fire that gets them to know each other is the play, is theatre.
7) WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO WRITE FOR THE THEATRE
I saw Revelations by Alvin Ailey. That changed my life. I was 13. Simultaneously, I was working with this improv troop that did theatre to rehabilitation centres – what you would call detention centres and institutions for prisoners.
I’d been acting all my life but the moment of change, when I recognised that theatre changed lives, was the moment when we were on stage in front of these women at a half way house. We were performing these monologues we had written about our own lives, about witnessing our mothers on drugs, life in our own communities and they began to cry and say `you look like our children. We don’t want our children ever to have to endure what you’re doing’. I just knew. I knew in that moment: theatre can affect lives.
I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve also thought about the fact that we were putting stories on stage and in space that hadn’t been put on before and giving voice to the voiceless. I say those things to myself constantly. It’s not about me, it is about the stories I’m telling. Who can I give voice to in a real way, in a palpable way? When do we see stories about brothers and how much they care for each other, especially when its black men. Usually, it’s `oh they must be rappers and or gangsters’.
8) WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO HAVE THE BROTHERS SIZE PRODUCED IN ENGLAND AT THE YOUNG VIC AND TO HAVE YOUR TWO OTHER PLAYS OPTIONED BY THEM
It means a lot. It’s an honour for another country to recognise your voice and say they believe in what you’re doing. More than that the Young Vic have been so supportive. I’m 27, they’d never met me but from reading my plays they decided to option all three.
9) YOU’VE WRITTEN A PLAY ABOUT HURRICANE KATRINA, DID IT GO WELL.
Very well. I’m not from New Orleans and in the beginning the community were very resistant to outsiders. They were really still hurting. Almost 70% of its population didn’t return to the city. There are total neighbourhoods that are just gone, they’ve not been rebuilt and people have not moved back. People are understandably very protective of what they have left.
I and two other writers were commissioned to do it by the Southern Repertory Theater. It’s been a two year journey into writing this piece, only half the battle giving it to the Southern Rep Theatre and having them accept it.
The review that the local people gave us was incredible and humbling because they truly said how we buckled down and figured out the language of New Orleans and that we painted a very broad and detailed picture of what happened with Katrina. The second half of that battle is that the piece was created so that nationally, we could keep drawing attention back to the fact that it was not a natural disaster, it was truly man-made. The breaches in the levees did not come from `the storm’ in itself. The waters flooding the bayeus broke levees that were crumbling and had been long ago abandoned by the people who were supposed to have upkeep on them. So the piece is to draw attention to the fact they’re a long way from recovery. The after shocks will be a long while.
10) WHAT WOULD YOU SAY THE BROTHERS SIZE IS ABOUT
It’s about two brothers and their bond. The play is testing that bond and what difficult situations it will get them through in the future.
11) WHERE DID THE NAMES OF THE THREE CHARACTERS, OGUN, OSHOOSI AND ELEGBA COME FROM
They’re yoruba demons and myths. They come from the cosmology of the religion which I was exposed to living in Miami because of Santeria and vodoo which came to America via the slave trade. Slaves began to innoculate catholic and christian religions that they were forced into with the old religions of yoruba. Those retentions still exist in our religious institutions especially in the south, in Florida, Louisiana, in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil.
Ogun is the name of the deity of iron. Oshoosi is the spirit of the wanderer who in the cosmology is Ogun’s brother. The third character, Elegba, is the deity of the crossroads. He’s also the messenger of the gods. One of the most powerful deities in the cosmology. He’s always presenting them with options. He’s always about paths and choices and he is the deity who constantly shows you the path, a choice.
That’s what I mean when I say it’s an American piece. Layered. In America we may try to deny that we’re a hodge podge of different cultures and influences but as a person growing up in America in a place lik Miami, I’m filled with experiences from bhutto training to suzuki training to Stanislavski but also tons of African music, African dance and the emergence of hip-hop which is nothing but fragments of old music turned into new music and then lyrically poeticised over. This notion of taking the past and recreating into new form, adding your own voice to old forms, is a heritage of that comes from everywhere. How many of Shakepseare’s plays are based on some ancient script or story, some myth? The Brothers Siez feels clear and simple but it is underpinned by a foundation that is deep in all of our traditions, not just African but western, west european, south American.
12) HAVE YOU FAMILY BEEN SUPPORTIVE?
When you come from a poor family, it’s be a doctor, be a lawyer. I’ve always buried my head and did what I have to do. When all of a sudden a lot of great things started happening for me, they said we always had high hopes for you.
First published in The Stage, October 2007
Interview in The Guardian for Moonlight.