News & Articles

Letter From Director

by Tina Landau

I often think of a play as born with a writer, who puts it in the hands of a director, who turns it over to the actors, who then give it to an audience. From a play to a production to a performance—like a gift passed through and shared among a community. Indeed, the word “community” derives from the Latin “cum” meaning “together” or “among each other,” and “munus” meaning “gift.” A community, then, could be that which ‘gives among each other,’ finds what is common to all or many. The Brother/Sister Plays are about a community. And, in their doing, they also create one—between me, Tarell and Steppenwolf, and then too with our actors, and finally too with you. This action—bringing disparate elements together to discover or forge a “oneness”—is at the core of all of Tarell’s work for me. For instance: SOURCES Tarell embraces the old and the new in equal measure. He writes from his own experience but then refracts it through other sources, cultures and histories (or vice versa)—from Greek and Roman mythologies to West African cosmologies to Shakespeare and street slang and popular music. When I first asked him about contrasting African drumming with some hip-hop music in one of his plays, he said, “Why? They’re the same. The one lives on in the other. That’s what interests me.” So in his plays we witness the ways in which the gods of the Yoruba religion walk today in the projects of Louisiana, we hear how the meters of classical verse reverberate in contemporary urban vernacular—past and present exist simultaneously. Which is why, I think, Tarell sets his plays in “The distant present.”­ “Distant” as only the past (or future) can be, and “present” as only today can be. Maybe that’s why sometimes people are unsure whether these plays take place in a real or mythical time, whether it’s ancient Africa or pre-Katrina New Orleans, or... The answer is Yes. And. Tarell has created a world of his own invention, by finding the syntheses in many others. Growing up in the projects of Miami, exposed to an intense cultural brew of the Southern, Haitian, Brazilian, European, African and more, Tarell has described his work as “layered” in the way that America is. He also told me once that the plays occur in “a place fertile with ghosts.” APPROACH Tarell and I both treasure foremost the “live-ness” of theater, what is most immediate, spontaneous or transitory in the event. We believe that theater is what happens here in this exact moment, between this particular audience and these particular performers on this particular night. And so our work together embraces ways to help us remember and exploit that. In these plays, we’re not interested in creating a room that you peer into to observe human behavior from a distance as much as we’re interested in breaking that “fourth wall” and establishing a playing space that includes you. The actors are storytellers and will speak what sound like “stage directions.” There are various reasons for this, a primary one being to remind us we’re all part of a storytelling tradition that stretches from the most ancient tales told round a fire to the most modern or even experimental forms of story-theater. The actors both become their characters and remain outside them to tell their stories to you. They never forget that they are actors in this theater with you. They will speak to you, look at you, and hope that you will look—and perhaps even talk—back, if you see fit. Really: feel free. Our goal is not to alienate but to invite, engage, meet. As Robert McKee has said, “Stories are the currency of human contact.” PURPOSE Tarell believes theater can change lives. He will tell you that theater not only changed but saved his. Growing up in the projects himself, Tarell was first exposed to theater by going into halfway houses and drug prevention centers to tell stories through drama. The subjects of the stories were the same as his audience—people in trouble, in need, in invisibility. During these early days, Tarell learned first-hand the redemptive power of theater, and he’s never forgotten it. For him, theater is all about the people, the audiences, the kidz. Everyday he asks how theater can reach into communities, grab hold of people who don’t usually like or go to the theater, impact their lives. Tarell will never miss the chance for a talk-back with an audience, he will always ask theaters to set up trips for him to visit schools, he will go out to neighborhoods and canvass the streets, the parks, the clubs, to get people to come into the theater. For him, it is all about the connection, the community. THE PLAYS In a way, the three plays in this trilogy function much like what I’ve described above: distinct entities, whole in themselves, yet gaining a unique power when viewed as one. Tarell wrote the plays as stand-alone pieces which nonetheless share characters, settings and themes. * In The Red And Brown Water is perhaps best described as a theatrical poem, or “choreo-poem.” Part story, part dance piece, part song. Tarell wrote the play in what he described as a “dream state” (jet-lagged, with insomnia, etc.) As the play has developed, we’ve fought to maintain its original, and most authentic, dramaturgy: more associative than linear, full of sudden leaps and shifts as one does indeed find in dreams. * The Brothers Size was written with a more conscious clarity and focus while Tarell was still in school. He dug into his deep emotional core and from there fashioned a dazzlingly well-structured and intimate drama. * For Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, Tarell found inspiration not only in the real (personal stories from him and friends, experiences in hurricane beleaguered New Orleans) but also in the fantastical: the great farces and dream plays of literature, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or fairy tales and fables in which people travel “into the woods” and emerge somehow changed. The three plays don’t line up in a neat linear way. They’re less in a perfect chronology than they are ‘in conversation’ with each other. They reflect on each other, echo, contradict, remind. They give a sense of time—time bending and passing through generations, a community, a culture. In strict chronological time, Red and Brown Water comes first, The Brother Size second and Marcus third. Yet the plays can be experienced singly or in a different order, for Tarell is not telling a dry history of a community as much as he’s inviting us to share in its experiences and dreams. Welcome. There’s a kind of amorphous family that’s born through The Brother/Sister Plays. I’ve been blessed to be invited into this family by Tarell, and to be given a home for it by Artistic Director Martha Lavey and Steppenwolf. Now it is time to welcome you. You are the last, and most important, part of these plays, this community. As Italo Calvino wrote, “It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.” We need you, and we’re glad you’re here.