When I left Portland Playhouse after opening night of the first part of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, I felt as if I were struggling to awake from a deep sleep. The mythic mood of that play, In the Red and Brown Water, with its chanting and singing and flights of lyrical fancy, felt like a fevered dream. Two weeks later, I left after the opening of the second two parts, which Portland Playhouse is presenting in repertory with the first half through May 13, feeling thankful—not for the performance, although it was very good—but not having been born poor, black and gay in the Louisiana bayou.
The Brothers Size and Marcus; or, the Secret of Sweet, the two one-acts that comprise the second half of the cycle, take place, like In the Red and Brown Water, in a hot, humid town in “the distant present.” The plays share characters and dramatic conceits, but each episode is less fantastic and more claustrophobic than the last. For the latter two, McCraney doubles down on the theme of captivity: In The Brothers Size, Oshoosi (Damian Thompson) struggles to escape the trauma of his prison sentence and his disastrous relationship with Legba (Brian Demar Jones, who was creepy as the younger version of the character in the first half and is far creepier here). His brother, Ogun (Portlander Bobby Bermea, in his most affecting performance in years), tries to break him free with tough love and bluster, but in the end has to let him go it alone. It’s heartbreaking.
Marcus has it even worse in The Secret of Sweet:
He is trapped by his own body. Legba’s son, he has inherited both his
deceased father’s desire for men and his prophetic dreams. Jones plays
both father and son, and his transformation from the suave, manipulative
Legba to the awkward and flustered teenage Marcus is perfect—the two
characters are just similar enough to underline their differences. Sweet
is almost derailed by the absurdity of Lava Alapa’i’s appearance in a
fat suit as Shaunta, Marcus’ friend and foil, but she plays the part of
the spirited and
boisterously vulgar Shaunta with such enthusiasm that she pulls it off.
She is a burst of joy in a grim work, but the pleasure of her
performance soon fades in the face of claustrophobia.
SEE IT: Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 205-0715. 7:30 pm April 26 and 28 and May 3, 5 and 11-12. 2 pm Sundays April 29 and May 6. 5:30 pm Sunday, May 13. $12-$23.