In the annals of graduate school theater, few productions have rocketed to the success of the The Brother/Sister Plays. First workshopped at the Yale School of Drama in 2006 by then-second-year-student playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, within a year it was garnering rave reviews at the Public Theater and awards for McCraney, who has become one of the most lauded new voices in theater.
Having just triumphantly returned to its church space on NE Prescott, Portland Playhouse opens the first of the trilogy’s plays tonight: In the Red and Brown Water. The theater will open the other two, The Brothers Size and Marcus: Or the Secret of the Sweet, on April 21.
The original director brought on by Portland Playhouse had to back out at the 11th hour, so they invited Victor Mack, who had appeared as an actor in previous Playhouse productions, to make his Portland directorial debut. I caught up with him in a back office cluttered with costumes while workers were busy building the set and hanging lights in the church’s theater.
What was it like to climb aboard at the last possible minute?
About a month prior to the first rehearsal, I got a call out of the blue saying, “how would you like to direct The Brother/Sister Plays?” I reread the plays, and that in and of itself made me want to accept the challenge. But the reality of doing that task made me take a whole week before I called back with the answer. Because it involved rehearsing three plays simultaneously with a cast I hadn’t met, not being sure if we’d be able to do it in the church or somewhere else, and starting with absolutely nothing.
The biggest task really is not the plays themselves; it’s the fact of not knowing who these people are who are going to be joining on the journey: the actors, the designers, the whole kit. I’ve never directed a play where I didn’t cast it.
This is my Portland directorial debut. I have never even conceived of directing three plays simultaneously. This is better than any graduate program, baby.
So it’s three plays spanning several decades of overlapping lives. Can you give us a rundown of the story?
I’ve had that question asked a lot, and when I give the answer people leave befuddled and think I’m not addressing it fully. To me, it’s about love, hope, and sacrifice. The beauty is they take place in this fictional town in Louisiana, and Louisiana is rich with culture. It’s the melting pot of all the people who’ve invaded the US at one point or another.
On the very simple story level, Red and Brown centers on a young girl who has a promising track career, but she has a choice to make. Her mother’s sick. She can go to college and her mother could pass while she’s away, or she can stay home and take care of her mother. She comes to many crossroads and ultimately her choice is based on love.
Brothers Size is a story of love and sacrifice. There’s an older brother who’s been caring for the younger brother since their parents passed on. The younger brother is a wild stallion who ended up in prison, returns, and is in the midst of being friends with the third character, who is in all three pieces—he’s a through line. Ultimately you find out the sacrifices that the older brother has made to make sure that the younger brother can find his place in the world.
The last play, Marcus, simply put, is a coming of age piece about a young man, who is the son of a character who’s in the other two pieces, and the relationship between Marcus and the world that he lives in.
In the Red and Brown Water seemed almost a fairy tale to me, and think we’re playing with that in terms of the style in which we’re presenting it. They all have distinct styles.
So you’ve dived into a Herculean feat to pull off rehearsing three plays in one month. What possessed you to do it?
There are so many levels to that question. I’m going to divide it into two parts. One, the plays themselves are a tremendous feat. Tarell Alvin McCraney—I think of this young man who obviously has such personal depth. I think when I was his age, maybe I had that, but I wasn’t able to share it like he has. The pieces are just beautiful and inspiring. If nothing else, I want to get some high school groups in here to see this, because it can be nothing if not inspiration to them. One, the stories, and two, the feat that this young man created this trilogy.
The second part is that Portland Playhouse has done three August Wilson plays now: Radio Golf, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Gem of the Ocean. I love these guys. It’s a breath of fresh air for the theater community. Albeit it’s just 99 seats, but it’s packed and people are chomping at the bit to step outside of the usual fare. Not that it’s solely about August Wilson; it’s about exposing everyone to different cultures and different ideas. Especially in the talkbacks, there’s something for them to connect to. You say “black plays,” and they ask, “am I going to be able to relate to that?” But afterwards, they say, “I understand.” That’s been a beautiful thing to behold, particularly in Portland, Oregon. I’ve remained here because I’ve always been hopeful that the same energy they give to being green and liberal, that it will translate to the arts as well. Ultimately we can sit down and have a conversation and understand each other even if we don’t agree. That’s why I say this is Americana: it isn’t a black play, it’s a show about people.