REVIEW: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Ground-breaking production reveals playwright’s brilliance


Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

The Brother/Sister Plays


by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
through May 23rd (more info)

review by Barry Eitel

Tarell Alvin McCraney has received quite a bit of exposure in the theatre blogosphere in recent months. The debut of his Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by the distinguished Tina Landau and featuring a powerhouse ensemble of actors, has made him subject to all sorts of interviews, features, and user comments.

BroSis-01 Fortunately, his work does stand up to the hype. At 29 years old, McCraney is on his way to being one of the premier playwrights of this upcoming decade.

There are plenty of comparisons to be made between McCraney’s work and the cream of the crop of African-American playwrights. Like Lorraine Hansberry, he has a flair for fiery dramatics. Like August Wilson, he layers in plenty of history and culture. Like Suzi Lori-Parks, he can whip out beautiful poetry – even in the darkest of situations. But like the works of all of these playwrights, The Brother/Sister Plays are born out of a multitude of influences. Hints of Brecht, Lorca and Yoruba; writers such as Wole Soyinka mark up McCraney’s loose trilogy of plays. McCraney’s plays are far more than a hodge-podge of influences, though. The Brother/Sister Plays show off a unique style, one that is detonated by Landau’s fertile imagination and the cast’s passionate dedication.

The Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf consist of three plays, In the Red and Brown Water, a full-length work, alongside The Brothers Size and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet. They are playing the three plays in repertory, with Red and Brown Water going up one night and a double-bill of Brothers Size and Marcus the next. Or you can choose to see all three on a marathon Saturday afternoon/evening. Although not a straight-up trilogy, the three plays are written in a similar style along with sharing characters and community (much like Wilson’s 10-play cycle). Each play works well as an individual piece, however. Red and Brown Water follows a young girl through the years as she struggles against her social class and the men in her life. Although all the plays have elements of song and poetry, this one is chock-full of pulsing, celebratory music and lyrical language. Marcus, the next longest play, takes place years later and details the journey of a teenager discovering his sexuality. It is the most plot-heavy of the three, and probably the most accessible. My personal favorite was The Brothers Size, a succinct, biting, actor’s dream of a play. Painted by social issues ranging from unemployment, homosexuality, and racial profiling, the piece pits two brothers against each other. The tight drama reminded me of David Mamet’s testosterone-crammed American Buffalo, currently sharing a building with these plays. (see our review★★★★)

BroSis-21 BroSis-02
BroSis-09 BroSis-23 BroSis-05

The writing provides a solid base, but the Steppenwolf production soars because of how well Landau’s viewpoints-focused direction compliments McCraney’s avant garde sensibilities. The three plays are set on a more-or-less bare stage, yet space and time are consistently transcended. (Ah, the possibilities of theatre.) It also helps that the ensemble comprises of some of the best actors in the city. The Brothers Size, for example, works so well because of the searing performances pumped out by Philip James Brannon and the great K. Todd Freeman. Other highlights include the brassy Jacqueline Williams and the introspective Glenn Davis.

With any show that experiments as bravely as The Brother/Sister Plays, there is bound to be a few stumbling blocks. The plays are littered with narrative takes to the audience (Ogun will say, “Ogun smiles,” and then he will smile), which create some fantastic moments but also sometimes feel a little overused. Marcus could also use about 15 minutes cut off, and the overall storyline can become convoluted. The theatrical dividends are well worth the occasional hiccup, though. The Brother/Sister Plays make it clear that McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.


Rating: ★★★★




Featuring ensemble members:



Author: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by: ensemble member Tina Landau
Scenic Design: James Schuette
Costume Design: James Schuette
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Sound Design: Michael Bodeen, Rob Milburn
Stage Manager: Deb Styer
Assistant Stage Manager: Rose Marie Packer
Musical Supervisor: Zane Mark

7 Responses

  1. Steppenwolf rarely fails to disappoint. This piece is the beginning of a new kind of theatre.

  2. […] Busy weekend. I saw The Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf on Saturday, and they are truly amazing. Here’s a plug for my review. […]

  3. In short, this play was awful, disrespectful to the Yoruba spiritual beliefs and practices, and overall uncomfortable to watch. Neither the writer nor the director conducted the proper research on the Yoruba culture, demonstrated through the whack characters. Why give such weak dysfunctional characters deity names, such powerful names? This production played up every Black America stereotype possible, seemly on purpose and for what? The characters were underdeveloped and the storyline went nowhere and was truly pointless. This was another dose of ‘showtime’, minstrel men show. The writer wrote without any thought to educating his audience, which made for a bad story. No thank you.

  4. […] 2010 by cateysullivan Yale School of Drama  instructor Rebecca Rugg will join the Steppenwolf  Theatre  Company  in the newly-created position of Associate Producer. The post involves  […]

  5. I was disappointed in McCraney’s trilogy, after all the hype. Sure, there were plenty of fun moments and occasional moving ones (mostly in The Brothers Size) but I couldn’t really find the originality. All the plot threads about low income black people seemed cliche–prison, deliberate pregnancies outside of wedlock, life on the down low. Yawn.

  6. […] Steppenwolf Theatre (Feb 2010) Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney directed by Tina Landau our review  |  photo […]

  7. […] Steppenwolf Theatre (Feb 2010) Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney directed by Tina Landau our review  |  photo […]

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