Back in late 2016, The Chancellor and I had heard a growing amount of buzz for indie film Moonlight. We’d always intended to see it at one point or another, but the holidays brought in a rush of cramming in movies with my in-laws. January and early February meant a lot of cramming, too. We saw Hidden Figures when it came out, and then we squeezed in a matinee of Fences on a weeknight (a rare treat when you are a teacher!), and then we found Moonlight playing at the cheap theater several miles away. We decided that since it was a second-run showing, we’d be the only ones in the theater and not have to worry about getting there early to nab good seats. Wrong. Since winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama, that low hum had turned to a loud buzz. That theater was packed with white people who were eager to see what the fuss was about. And while I can’t speak for other people, I can speak for myself: what an incredible film.
It’s rare that a film can be so heartbreaking but affirming, original, and surprising all at the same time. I think the last time a film surprised me this much was Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 Black Swan, which, in my opinion, was a far superior film to either the Pajiba favorite The Social Network (truly one of the smuggest films I’ve seen) or the Oscar winner The King’s Speech (truly delightful and feel-good fare, but not so innovative or artistic). As I fought back tears during the credits (and they were good tears, mind you), I noted that there was a line attributing the film’s story to a play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The minute we got home, I went to the library website to search.
As Wikipedia informed me, the play had been written for a thesis project but was never formally performed. Instead, my library offered me a trio of plays written by McCraney and officially performed. The sequence is known as The Brother/Sister Plays and is separated into three separate plays: In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. I read all three in a gallop, and while I don’t typically include all sequels in an umbrella review, I’m going to do so here, because I think it’s almost impossible to talk about one without the other.
In the Red and Brown Water (Book 26 for me) focuses on Oya, a talented track runner with dreams of leaving her Louisiana town and becoming a star. Yet duty calls, and her mother’s health is declining. Oya sacrifices her dream to care for her mother, and at the same time languishes with love of Shango. Ogun Size falls in love with her, though she does not return that love. Ultimately, Shango runs away to war, and Oya is persuaded to try a relationship with Ogun instead, until her love for Shango and her own bodily secrets force a wedge greater than Ogun’s love.
I’ve read quite a few plays, and McCraney’s style is unusual. Instead of writing his stage directions in brackets, he has the characters speak them. It’s bizarre, and it threw me. I’ve never seen that, and I didn’t like it at first. Yet the more I read, the more I became accustomed to his unusual style and found a quiet lyricism in the way his characters spoke their actions. I think that seeing a play like this would be highly intriguing, because then your actors could interpret the stage-directions-as-dialogue any way they want.
This play conveys the conflict of duty versus desire on both a familial and a romantic level. Oya is a compelling and sympathetic character. In the context of the other plays, this play sets the inter-generational conflict that will follow in the sequence. Though just Ogun Size appears now, he will form a major part of the familial conflict in the sequence. This play rates 3.5 stars for me. You can see McCraney’s voice emerging, though his identity as a playwright is not cemented yet.
The Brothers Size (Book 27) is considered to be the pivotal play in the sequence. This time, we focus exclusively on two brothers: Ogun and Oshoosi Size. Ogun is stable—he owns an auto repair shop. His brother Oshoosi has just been released from prison and is seeking a new start. It seems to occur when his ex-cellmate Elegba arrives and gives him a car in need of repair. Oshoosi seems to think that a new start is on its way, but old habits die hard.
This play really shines in its construction of language and setup of storyline. The relationship between Oshoosi and Elegba is somewhat ambiguous, which makes me wonder if they had a romantic attachment at some point. The play highlights the problems of starting over with the stigma of incarceration and shows the effects of imprisonment on the individual. This is a solid 4-star play for me. It builds on the aspects of the first play and expands them into a different personal story.
Finally, Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet (Book 28) focuses on the next generation. Marcus is Elegba’s son, and he is the protagonist of the play. Ogun Size is a mentor to him, and even though Oshoosi appears as a ghost, his presence hovers over the script. Marcus is having to figure out why his father is absent, why he feels only a certain kind of love for his female best friend, and why a young man named Shua enters his world and turns it upside down. To say any more about this play would be to spoil it, and I do not want to do this. It’s a lyrical play about discovering one’s heritage and one’s sexuality at a pivotal moment in adolescence.
This is where McCraney’s lyrical dialogue shines the brightest and becomes the most poignant. This story has a lot of connections to other stories, but it is still original and intelligent. As you can tell, this was absolutely a 5 star play for me, because it took a well-known concept—identity and sexuality—and turned it inwards using dialogue and off-screen revelations to arrive at the denouement. This play has the closest connections to Moonlight, and there are several moments where I could feel Little/Chiron/Black shining through.
McCraney is an immensely talented playwright, and I greatly look forward to seeing what he can do next.
And I would absolutely be remiss if I didn’t give Moonlight a little moment of love from their Oscar win.
I really, really wanted this movie to win. I was crushed when La La Land was announced as the winner, and then when I heard about the mistake and Moonlight was rightfully announced, I burst into heaving sobs in front of my party guests. In the words of my beloved Beyoncé, I ain’t sorry.