For most students who walk the revered halls of Yale School of Drama, their journey is paved with countless hours agonizing over scripts, trekking to casting calls and meeting with acting coaches. And then there’s Brian Tyree Henry. “I didn’t even know where Yale was,” recalls the 26-year-old, who applied to the school on a whim and graduated in 2005. “I guess I knew it was in the North.”
But after putting down roots in Connecticut, the North Carolina native made up for his initial cluelessness with raw talent, landing the lead role in classmate Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size.” Three years later, the three-man production is running at The Public Theater (original cast intact) through Dec. 23.
The play follows Oshoosi Size (played by Henry) in the months after having been released from jail. Oshoosi is caught between his brother Ogun, who wants to keep him on the straight and narrow, and Elegba, his friend from prison whose scheming makes it hard for Oshoosi to break his bad habits. “He’s not a bad person,” Henry says of his character. “He’s just really this lively person who wants to live life to its fullest.” In fact, Henry is much the same. “When it came down to the core of it, he’s me. The one always cracking jokes, the one who’s singing when nobody’s really listening.”
In high school, Henry’s extracurricular interests tended toward variations on the performance theme. “I did choir, I was the mascot, I did debate team,” he says. Once at Morehouse College, Henry caught the acting bug when he landed the role of Creon in a production of “Antigone.” Still, Henry wasn’t convinced the drama world was for him. “After graduation, I was planning on getting a job in security in D.C., like for the IRS or something,” he says, “but my adviser grabbed me and said, ‘That’s the stupidest thing you could do. You’re not going to do that.'” He convinced Henry to apply to graduate school drama programs. “And when he mentioned Yale, I laughed in his face.”
Midway through his audition at the Ivy League institution, Henry was met with a rude awakening: “It’s 9:45 at night, I’m sitting in the lobby [of the casting call] and they’re like, ‘You need a song,'” Henry recalls. “I’d been watching ‘Grease’ in my hotel room the night before and ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee’ was the only song that came to mind. They did not laugh at all. I can’t believe they took me after all that.”
Now, three years since he took the stage in “The Brothers Size,” Henry seems ready for a change. “It’s time to let Oshoosi go,” he says. “I’ve got all kinds of things brewing.”