At Unicorn, ‘Brothers’ Explores the Emotional Connections of Men

If there’s one thing that the Unicorn Theatre excels at, it’s showing life situations – even common life situations – from an unorthodox perspective. Most of the Unicorn’s productions cause you to leave the theater a little bit different than when you entered the theater.
This is especially true of its current production, The Brothers Size. The playwright is Tarell Alvin McCraney, who published the play when he was 27 years old. He wrote it to tell stories of “the other America,” and the story he tells here is lyrical, genre-defying, and heartbreaking.
It’s about a car mechanic named Ogun who is taking care of Oshoosi, his little brother. Oshoosi recently got out of prison and is trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Oshoosi has a best friend, Elegba, who was in prison with him. Oshoosi’s main goal is to get a car so he can get back to finding girls to sleep with. Ogun loves his brother, but doesn’t trust him – or Elegba.
From this simple, rather ordinary story idea, McCraney and director Mykel Hill dig deep. The story and characters actually are layered on top of West African Yoruba myth. The three men reflect characteristics of the gods after which they are named. A few people who are talked about, but not seen, in the play are also Yoruba deities.
The play has very unusual details. There’s a literal rhythm to it, and the men pound out drumbeats at various times, using whatever comes to their hands – wrenches, bowls, tires. Some of the dialogue is almost poetic. The characters also sometimes speak their stage directions before acting them out, which gives a surreal feel to things, like we are simultaneously watching from above and seeing directly into the story.
The play concerns some very complicated and nuanced emotional connections between men: brothers that love and need and resent each other, and best friends who blur the lines between friendship, brotherhood and love. I’ve never seen a play be able to illustrate these connections before. This occurs because the emotions get rawer, and the secrets between hardened, grown men get exposed. Ogun and Oshoosi cut the skin off each other as only brothers can. Elegba and Oshoosi share secrets that we understand before we know what they are.
Damron Russel Armstrong is one of Kansas City’s theatrical jewels, and he plays Ogun so well that his facial expressions alone told a large part of the story. He hammers on Oshoosi as if his little brother was a piece of metal that needed to be bent in the correct way. Teddy Trice is great as Elegba, the best friend who helps to keep secrets – and owns the crossroads that Oshoosi stands on.
The hardest part to play has to be Oshoosi, a smart but troubled man, who loves beautiful things and is looking for the right influences in his life. Donovan Woods commandingly plays this intimidating role. Woods has huge energy and charisma, as well as an ability to go from goofy to contemplative in the blink of an eye. He holds the character of Oshoosi with all the delicate strength of a paintbrush. Woods positively paints the stage with Oshoosi … and he brought a tear to my eye in the process.
The Brothers Size is a unique and amazing play that tells parallel stories on different levels. By weaving real life with ancient myth, and by using traditional storytelling that breaks its own conventions, it accesses parts of the human heart that are rarely acknowledged or understood.
The Brothers Size plays through Nov. 8 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. Tickets are available at unicorntheatre.org, at the box office, or at 816-531-7529.

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