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Described as “Shakespeare meets The Wire”, The Brothers Size is written by 27-year-old American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, a newly inducted member of the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble. We speak to director Imara Savage as she brings to stage McCraney’s poetry on paper.

What was it like working with Tarell Alvin McCraney? Wow! I wish I had worked with Tarell. I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him and had to content myself with YouTube clips and interviews. Tina Landau, the director of The Brothers Size at the Steppenwolf describes this piece as a choreo-poem. Tarell himself admits that he harbours a not-so-secret desire to be a dancer.

How would you describe his style? It is Greek theatre and Shakespeare in the sense that gods and mortals collide. It is The Wire in that it’s written in contemporary African American vernacular. It is prose, verse, hip hop anthem and a gospel choir. It is movement and song. It is Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and Grotowsky’s “poor theatre”, in that it strips theatre back to it’s basic state and demands of the actors their voice, text, bodies and their relationship with the audience to be the tripod on which the show stands.

How does music play a part in The Brothers? The play is written around drum rhythms. The rhythms of the music of the Yoruba tradition are embedded within the text, so that even when there is no music, the audience is listening to musically encoded text. In the same way that Shakespeare provides us with rhyme and metre, Tarell’s words are built around rhythm and song. His influences come from his favourite hip hop artist Common and his first theatrical experience being in Baptist churches watching his grandfather preach the story of Lazereth rising from the dead.

On another level we are working with Miriam Liebermann, an accomplished musician who has spent a good deal of her life in Latin America and Africa studying the music of the now dispersed Yoruba traditions. So there are three dynamics at play. Firstly the songs that Tarell himself references (hip hop, soul and R&B), secondly the music of the Yoruba traditions played live by Miriam on stage (mainly drums, kora and voice) and thirdly there are the rhythms played out in the text.

As the director, what impressed you about McCraney’s words? When I first read the play I thought, “this voice is truly unique”. It wasn’t trying to be anything other than what it was. Tarell’s text is raw, exposing, poetic, beautiful, violent and sensual, just the way life is.

There was a play, True West, about brothers at STC late last year. Why are stories about brothers so compelling to tell and watch? I saw True West. Actually, I was directing another Shepard play Fool For Love at Belvoir around the same time which was also about siblings. I don’t think brothers are any more interesting than sisters, fathers, mothers or half cousins for that matter. Brothers are about family and family will always be a compelling story to tell and watch.

Until 16 Apr, SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod St, Kings Cross. $26-$30. 8002 4772, griffintheatre.com.au

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