After ‘Moonlight,’ Tarell Alvin McCraney takes on both Broadway and Oprah’s network
It’s been extraordinary times for Tarell Alvin McCraney.
After “Moonlight” won the 2017 best picture Oscar and another for his semi-autobiographical screenplay (with director Barry Jenkins), McCraney became head of the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama in New Haven, where he had been a student just 10 years earlier.
McCraney, who is also a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient and Windham-Campbell Prize winner, also wrote a screenplay for Steven Soderbergh, “High Flying Bird.” The dark comedy about basketball players during a lock-out was just purchased by Netflix.
Earlier this year he also flew to Paris to join Peter Brook — one of McCraney’s mentors — in the development of the legendary director’s latest project, “The Prisoner,” which eventually traveled to the Yale Repertory Theatre in November before moving onto New York.
In December, McCraney, 38, made his Broadway debut as a playwright with his play with music, “Choir Boy,” which was a hit when it played off-Broadway several years ago.
And this coming summer the series he created for Oprah Winfrey, “David Makes Man,” will be launched on her network, OWN. The series, like “Moonlight,” is a lyrical drama set in the Miami projects and is a coming-of-age story centering in a African-American 14-year-old prodigy. The series also features Phylicia Rashad.
What does he make of his first foray into television?
“I haven’t had much reflection time,” says McCraney in a phone conversation from Georgia where the final episodes of the series was being filmed. “I literally left ‘Choir Boy’ yesterday and came here today and fly back tomorrow to ‘Choir Boy’ tomorrow.” And this fall he was also overseeing his classes in New Haven, too, which he’ll continue next semester as well.
“But television is not a different animal, just a larger, more complicated one,” he says. “Like theater, there’s a lot of collaboration happening between me and the actors, the other writers, the producers and the editors and a lot of respect to the work and art. The difference is in the timetables and the way they have to turn around [the shows]. It’s more like the difference between the feral bobcat and the lion.”
It’s a medium he hopes to continue writing in, he says. “You get to understand different muscles in yourself and in the work. It’s thrilling to be able to do both.”
Working on Broadway for the first time hasn’t changed his process either, he says. He still wants to write work that is complex, nuanced and challenging.
“I know a lot of artists really want to create things that answers questions but that has never been my style or something I’ve ever been interested in. I’m interested in investigating questions and this play still leaves you with a whole lot of questions.”
Perhaps because of his busy schedule, he says he still feels like a bit of the outsider to Broadway.
“I think I was in [Broadway hang-out] Joe Allen’s one time because I met friends there and I don’t think I’ve ever been to Sardi’s,” he laughs.
Are the stakes higher for him on Broadway?
“Yes, but not because of Broadway,” he says. “Whenever you see a depiction of black gay queer people, it’s an important thing and it’s gotten increasingly so. Once people saw ‘Moonlight,’ some people felt, ‘OK, we did that so we’re good for the next 20 years.’ I feel the opposite. I want to see as many versions of that as possible and that we continue to engage people in telling these stories and not let this moment pass us by.”
As for the rest of 2019, McCraney will demonstrate his acting chops when he stars in a new work he created with director Tina Landau: “Ms. Blakk For President.” The work is inspired by the true story of America’s first black drag queen presidential candidate and set in 1992 with the AIDS crisis at its height.” The play will premiere in May at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre where McCraney is an ensemble member.
Is returning to acting difficult, or is it just like riding a bicycle, easy as soon as you start again?
“No,” he laughs. “Riding a bicycle is easy. But acting is a tricky thing and doing it for eight shows a week is a different animal altogether.”
Does he feel that the success of “Moonlight” helped other independent, personal films such as this season’s black-and-white art film, “Roma?”
“I think there always has been incredible work out there and I think people are invigorated by the idea of doing that intimate work that has incredible depth. But contrary to public belief there are people who do not like ‘Moonlight,’ who do not like what it stood for and do not like how it came on the scene. We would be foolish to think those people are not out there championing and campaigning for something like what they had before. So what’s really important is for us to keep supporting work like ‘Roma.’ ”
When asked about the impact of winning the Oscar, he is quick to point out the realities of the business.
“There are people who think I’m a millionaire because I had this film and Oscar and nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “Barry and I and the other people who helped create ‘Moonlight’ did not sit around thinking, wanting, positioning it for the road it went on. We put a lot of love and sacrifice in it because we cared about the subject and the people involved. There’s a lot of film, television and theater productions that get made that way and we’ve got to be diligent about supporting that work and not just waiting for one to break through and become a ‘Moonlight’ in order to make it worthy.”
Frank Rizzo has covered Connecticut arts for nearly 40 years.