For most of its thirty-minute length, the streaming production of Aleshea Harris’s Brother, Brother feels like a cross between a radio play and a gorgeously illustrated children’s book. We don’t see the actors, but instead hear them while we watch evocative images of landscape (by Ibrahim Rayintakath) and silhouetted figures. (The piece is lightly animated, by Liang-Hsin Huang, but the animation feels like a technique to add interest and dynamism to the images, rather than being the main medium.) It’s got the quiet simplicity of a fairy tale, too, with both Harris and director Shayok Misha Chowdhury working in elegant restraint.
Two brothers, one a fiddler and one his “mouth” (barker/announcer) move through a rural landscape, playing pick-up shows as they go, on their way to Chattanooga for Jim (Gbenga Akinnagbe), the fiddler, to vie for a recording contract. We’re lulled into ease by the cyclical pace of both the visuals and Harris’s story: Jim and Wally (Amari Cheatom) pedal their way across the landscape by day, and set up their tent to perform by night; the perspectives and views shift from day to day but there’s a soothing repetition to it all. Akinnagbe and Cheatom are following their dream through America, and though they’re just scraping by, they’re scraping by in pursuit of a goal, and it motivates.
And yet–right from the beginning, there’s something unsettling. Jim carries a bag of teeth as his good-luck charm; it’s the first thing we learn about him, that a bag of teeth makes him feel safe. And then a strange figure–an old man in a maroon suit–starts to turn up at the back of the crowd whenever Jim performs. And then he turns up just outside the circle of light cast by Jim and Wally’s campfire, and gradually he’s following them everywhere. And then one day there’s a young man, also in a maroon suit, with him. And they won’t go away. And suddenly this amiable little tale with a hint of strange starts to shift into something very bleak, and very sad, indeed–and we remember how much violence and grief lie at the core of fairy tales.
Rayintakath does stunning work in creating the piece’s visual landscape–misty mountains and haunting forests and open fields where you can almost feel the heat of the sun and the damp of the fog. The clearings where Wally and Jim perform, too, convey so much about the world they live in: a small tent in a vast dark space, with a few figures silhouetted in the warm light cast from their tent. We hardly see faces; the human figures are almost always in silhouette, with just a few glimpses of the old man’s face as the piece proceeds. And Rayintakath’s work really pays off as Brother, Brother shifts into darker realms, ending with a haunting series of images that loop the narrative right back to its opening moments; it’s a real payoff for the format that I think would have not been nearly as effective in a live performance.
All along, I felt like Jim’s fiddle music (composed by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton) had a nice period flavor, but sounded a little generic. It made me question the brothers’ assurance that Jim would get a record contract at the end of their journey. But when I think back on the other hints that perhaps all was not as it seemed, I wonder if the music was another clue all along.