In October, playwright Tarell McCraney will turn 30, but he has lived enough and written enough to be someone twice his age. Talking with him is like conferring with a wise old sage.
McCarter Theater is the first theater to produce together all three plays that make up McCraney’s trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays.” They will be performed in a rotating two evening repertory. The first evening introduces “In the Red and Brown Water;” the second evening features “The Brothers Size” (seen earlier at McCarter’s 2007 IN-Festival) and “Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet” in its world premiere production.
Born in Miami, McCraney is the oldest son of a relatively poor family who lived in the inner city. He made very strong observations and connections with his sister, Kekoneme, and two brothers, Jason and Paul, and has dedicated these plays to them. Their mother struggled with drug addiction and died at a young age from HIV/ AIDS. After their mother’s death, the children lived with their father in Liberty City, Florida, where he is a custodian for the Miami Dade County public schools. McCraney is the only member of his family involved in the arts.
In a phone interview I ask him when he first was drawn to theater, and he laughs. Trying to answer reminds him of when he and his next door neighbor/buddy were about nine years old and tried to figure out their history. “We were born just three days apart and don’t remember how we met. We had always just been there.” When he endeavors to trace his theater roots, he says that just when he thinks he’s found their genesis, someone reminds him of something that happened earlier, going back to a Christmas pageant when he was three. However, he says, “the earliest memory I have was being Martin Luther King, Jr. for a program at the church. My mom taught me the speech by reading it to me and I’d repeat it over and over. When I got up in church and made the speech, it was the first time I was in front of an audience and pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I was 5 or 6.” His ambition during his early years was to be a lawyer and a preacher. “I didn’t decide to be a theater professional until I was 14 or 15.”
So his feet were set on this track at an early age, but where and how weren’t so clear to him. Having been raised in the Southern Baptist Church, he says, “I prayed about it. I received a feeling that this was the road I should go on, that this was the way for me if I just moved along, everything would fall in line and it did. I had prayed ‘This is what I’m going to do and I need help.’ I had this great overwhelming feeling in my heart that I would have that. I just had to walk forward. So I did and I still try to.”
One of the germinal events for him was when he joined a group of student actors who, under the aegis of a rehabilitation center, performed scenes in the community as a vehicle for HIV/AIDS prevention. “At an early age, I realized what theater could do. We had no velvet seats to sit in — we were performing in rec rooms at various centers. But I learned what theater can do in a very immediate and incredible way. I found it very exciting and touching. If you were really in the moment, you could build a bridge between yourself and the audience, who in this case were basically criminals. And you could start a dialogue with them about life, which was very important to me. That’s when I decided to be a theater artist.”
It’s quite a testament to the power of prayer. Everything has fallen into place for McCraney and with speed and amazing results. One of his mentors was his guidance counselor at South Miami High School who steered him to Miami’s New World School of the Arts. McCraney’s mentor was also instrumental in getting him into DePaul University in Chicago on scholarship. “I had low esteem problems, didn’t think much of myself, but I believed in what I was doing,” says McCraney. His guidance counselor also believed in him and gave him the support he needed. “It was a hard won battle. At one point, I didn’t think I was deserving of the good things that were happening. They opened their lives to me like family and I’m still very close to them.”
A story written by Christine Dolen that appeared in the Miami Herald in 2007 relates a very telling incident that McCraney told her. He was often a target of bullies who would chase him, throwing rocks and epithets. One time, the rock barrage suddenly stopped and he realized that it was because they were afraid they might break the windows of nearby parked cars. McCraney told her, “I took from that how much my community valued me — worth less than glass.” He has come a long way from those streets of Liberty City.
He earned a degree in acting from DePaul University in 2003 and performed professionally as an actor in Chicago working with directors Tina Landau and Peter Brooke — both major figures in the theater world. For his performance in the Landau-directed “Blue/Orange” by Joe Penhall, McCraney was nominated for the prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award. Landau directs Evening 1 of “The Brother/Sister Plays” at McCarter, consisting of the play “In the Red and Brown Water.” Evening 2, directed by Robert O’Hara, consists of “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet.” The plays can be seen in any order.
Considering the relatively slim canon of roles for African-American actors, McCraney decided to expand the list by writing a play himself. His first play, “Without/ Sin,” an adaptation of a novel, was instrumental in his getting into the Yale University School of Drama’s prestigious playwriting program. Among his teachers was the playwright Lynn Nottage whose play “Ruined” is currently running in New York and has just received this year’s Pulitzer Prize.
Again, “fortune” gave him another great opportunity. He was chosen to serve as assistant to the great African-American playwright August Wilson. At that time in Wilson’s life, he was working on “Radio Golf,” the final play of his decade-by-decade journey through the African American experience of the 20th century. (“Radio Golf” was performed at McCarter in the spring of 2007, prior to its Broadway run.) McCraney remembers, “I was a first year student. They wanted him to have an assistant. Since I was the only male black student there at the time, they said ‘It’s you.’ I’m the worst organizer in the world. Poor August was stuck with me.” A prime focus of his job was to protect Wilson from everyone who wanted to interview him. Since Wilson was ill at the time and working on his last play, “It was a very pressurized time,” says McCraney. “Radio Golf” premiered at Yale Rep in April, 2005; Wilson died of liver cancer the following October.
Wilson was very generous with the young student writer, who graduated from Yale with a master’s degree in playwriting in May, 2007. “The gift he gave to me was watching him give to other people. He liked to talk and tell stories, to open up what he was doing to other people.” When Wilson saw McCraney’s first show at the Yale Cabaret, he encouraged him by saying that he enjoyed the play. “August added that my voice was very strong, but I needed music.” Earlier Wilson had sent McCraney on an errand to buy an expensive iPod as a gift for his daughter. That had been a ruse; he gave the iPod to McCraney. “I don’t remember crying. But all accounts are that I did.” In his “Brother/Sister Plays,” he uses music in all three plays. “Lots of singing,” he says. “Lots of taped music, ‘found’ music, and some original music interwoven throughout.”
McCraney was recently named as the International Writer in Residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Great Britain and is currently in a seven-year residency at New Dramatists in New York. He is also a Princeton University Hodder Fellow.
Although his plays are stylized, with echoes of Greek theater and Yuruban stories (rooted in West African spiritual teachings), McCraney feels that the experiences in the play will relate to a wide audience. “Often we’re taught to be different, to keep divides happening. It’s a balancing act, but it is an artist’s job to do the opposite — to find how we engage and connect. I think it’s really in our nature to find our connections.” Though his trilogy is set in Louisiana, the plays echo the sound and rhythms of Africa mixed with more contemporary music and words, as well as reflecting theatrical styles from the Greeks. McCraney says that the audience can enter this world and find reflections of ourselves and our lives.
The McCarter production is the first time all three plays have been done together, but two have been produced in a variety of settings: Spain, London, Dublin, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC. “Wherever we are I hear people leaving the theater saying ‘that boy is just like my brother’ or ‘I have an aunt like that.’ Whether they are speaking with Castilian lisp or hard Irish accents,” he adds, “none of these people are of the world where these plays take place, but something in the plays speaks to them. These are universal feelings: brotherhood, a woman in her first love, striving to become better and not being able to. Deep in our hearts, each of us has something we can’t express that makes us feel like we are the only one. They are human experiences, not black white, blue, pink.”
The third play in the trilogy, “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet,” is a story of a young man coming out as a homosexual. McCraney, who is gay, certainly speaks from his personal experience. However, he clarifies, “It’s not really personal for me, no more than I try to make everything I write personal. But my life was not like this — not as funny.” He also is assuring that the story will resonate for a wide audience. “The play doesn’t allow the audience to avoid seeing the similarities. At one point the main character walks up to the audience and says, ‘Have you ever been so tired that you couldn’t sleep?’ Ninety-eight percent of us have had that feeling before. It’s a small moment, but it’s a lightening rod moment that won’t let us consider this person as different or that he doesn’t feel the same things we feel — not afraid of the same things that we are. The walls begin to come down. At the end of the day, we have a common bond.
“I think that the plays in the trilogy are a bridge that connects actor and the audience. With theater, there’s a dialogue between audience and the actors on stage,” McCraney says. “It’s different from watching television, which is one-way. When the audience isn’t present in a theater, it’s a rehearsal. The audience is the third part of the process that we need. It’s thrilling to go through these experiences with people who know you are there. It’s a powerful tool emotionally that the theater has — and also in church. In the live space, believing and feeling things that you can see as a community — a moment of recognition. That’s my hope and aim.”
"In the Red and Brown Water," McCarter Theater at the Berlind, 91 University Place. In repertory through Sunday, June 21. Evening I of the Brother/Sister plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Adult language and mature themes. Evening 2 includes “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet.” Evening I and II may be seen in any order. $36 to $49. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.