“That beautiful music of a new voice”

The extraordinary trajectory of a young playwright.

Cathy Shufro is the Berkeley College writing tutor. She first wrote about Tarell Alvin McCraney for the magazine’s July/August 2006 issue (“Three Young Playwrights. Three New Plays. Now Comes the Hard Part”).

In September 2013, something strange happened to playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. He was at the Miami airport, en route to New Haven to pick up a writing award, when someone phoned to say he’d won a MacArthur Fellowship—a $625,000 “genius” grant. He put down the phone to see if the prankster would hang up. She didn’t.

A few days later, McCraney ’07MFA was sitting at the head of a seminar table in Yale’s Department of African American Studies, six blocks from where fellow drama students had staged his first play seven years before. McCraney was one of nine writers being honored with $150,000 Windham-Campbell awards during a four-day celebration, and 40 people who wanted to meet him had crowded into the room. During a lull in the question-and-answer session, he asked, “Questions, comments, gifts of cash?” A beat: “Oh, yeah, they already gave me the cash.” McCraney smiled, suddenly looking very young.

He kept to himself what had happened on the way to New Haven. “I just won an award,” he was thinking. “I don’t know if people are going to give me another award. That sounds too good to be true.”

It was true. And in April 2014 he won another prize, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award of $225,000, bringing his total unsolicited award money to an even million.

Since graduating in 2007, McCraney has had his plays produced in theaters from Seattle to Dublin and from Auckland to Istanbul—and by three of the most prominent theaters in the English-speaking world: New York City’s Public, Chicago’s Steppenwolf, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He travels so much that, at age 33, he has no home; he lives out of a suitcase.

McCraney’s success is startling in more ways than one. He grew up without much money—mostly in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, where teenagers sold crack on the streets. He knew that he wanted a life in theater, but his mother was struggling with drug addiction and his father, a school custodian, left it to his son to find after-school programs and magnet schools. The opportunities were limited and not easy to seize. When Tarell applied to Miami’s competitive public high school for the performing arts, he didn’t get in. A few months later, he tried out for a youth theater group and bungled the audition.

But the troupe’s then-director, Teo Castellanos, accepted him. “I felt something in him,” Castellanos says.

Middle school students are streaming out of buses and into the Art Deco entryway of the Colony Theatre in Miami’s South Beach. They’re arriving from all over Miami-Dade County on this morning in January 2014 for a free showing of Antony and Cleopatra. It’s because of McCraney that England’s Royal Shakespeare Company is coproducing a play with a small theater in south Florida. He struck a deal with the RSC: he would direct Antony and Cleopatra in Stratford-upon-Avon and New York City if they’d add a production in his hometown. The Colony is eight miles from where he grew up.

Inside the small lobby, he’s sitting alone against a wall, watching the students file into the auditorium. A few teachers catch McCraney’s eye, and he nods slightly. The students don’t notice him.

Twenty minutes later, the lean and graceful McCraney walks onto the stage. He tells the 400 students and teachers that he knows they’ve traveled far. “We’ve traveled even longer: three years to make this show happen for you.

“It’s going to be very important that you don’t do it for the vibe,” he says as he mimes snapping a photo with a phone. Laughter fills the auditorium. To avoid distracting the actors, he says, audience members should turn off their phones, their iPads—and their fax machines (another laugh). And then, from the back of the auditorium, actors enter, walking down both aisles. They’re breathing audibly; the audience falls silent, and the rushing sound fills the space. McCraney is gone, and the play has begun.

In a “radical edit,” as McCraney calls it, he has pruned the complicated plot of Antony and Cleopatra and moved the action from Egypt and Rome to Haiti and France, underlining the friction arising from colonial rule. He hasn’t altered Shakespeare’s language. But the students follow closely enough to catch, for instance, the innuendo when a messenger tells Cleopatra that Antony, her lover, has taken a wife. She asks, “For what good turn?” and the messenger replies, “For the best turn i’ the bed.” Murmurs rise from the audience, followed by shushing.

After the show, an eighth grader says her favorite character is Cleopatra. “She’s great. She’s so sassy.” A classmate is impressed by the actors: “They had the exact looks of people.”

McCraney can’t remember a time when he wasn’t making theater. As a child, he performed in church pageants, and on his own he memorized speeches and poems and invented monologues. Theater “has always been there,” he says.

After McCraney failed to get a spot at the New World performing arts high school, he landed at South Miami Senior High. It was a guidance counselor there who sensed that McCraney was at loose ends and phoned Castellanos about an audition.

When he joined Castellanos’s Village Improv Troupe in 1995, McCraney began collaborating with a half dozen other teenagers, performing their own work at halfway houses, schools, and drug rehabilitation centers. They made what Castellanos calls “ritual-based” theater: by the light of candles and of industrial flashlights colored by gels, to the sounds of djembe and trumpet, the young actors would deliver monologues and dialogues about lives derailed by crack and alcohol. It was a world McCraney knew. His mother had been addicted to drugs; she left for rehab when he was 12.

Sometimes people in the audience would cry when McCraney performed his monologues; sometimes McCraney would cry. “Within a year, he was top gun,” says Castellanos.

Castellanos remembers one incident in particular, at a youth detention center. After the performance, a distraught drug counselor took Castellanos aside. He had been an addict himself, he said, and had sold drugs to McCraney’s mother. He asked permission to apologize to the young man. Castellanos says McCraney listened calmly and then forgave the counselor. “I’ll never forget that,” he adds.

After a year with Castellanos, McCraney made it into New World as a sophomore. His guidance counselor there, Sylvan Seidenman, had a caseload of 230 students, but he and McCraney soon developed an unusual connection. “When he’d come up in the office and he’d have problems with a teacher,” Seidenman recalls, “I’d say, ‘Tarell, you have to mold it, you have to shape it, you have to make it work for you.’” McCraney says, “He really was trying to make sure I understood that there are other options—other than the no-options that I often saw.”

Seidenman and his colleagues did for McCraney what they did for other students who couldn’t afford to attend college auditions: “We formed what we called a posse for him—teachers, counselors, the principal. We made sure his costs were covered.” McCraney auditioned at Juilliard and got a few callbacks, but he wasn’t accepted. “Tarell jokes that I was more upset than he was,” says Seidenman.

McCraney went to DePaul University in Chicago to study theater, and Seidenman flew there every time McCraney acted in a play. “By that time, I was fully hooked on Tarell,” says Seidenman. McCraney began calling Seidenman and his wife—Sandy, a kindergarten teacher—his godparents. (Today, the Seidenmans store McCraney’s plaques and certificates in a spare bedroom. They call it “the Tarell McCraney wing.”)

Attending commencement at DePaul, the Seidenmans felt increasing anxiety as they watched the theater graduates file in. McCraney had told them his classes weren’t going well, and they couldn’t find him in the procession. Finally he appeared, last in line. He was the class speaker. McCraney’s father, grandmother, and brother also saw him graduate, but his mother, Marian Alvin, was too frail to attend. She died five weeks later from complications of AIDS.

All the years he was acting, McCraney never stopped writing. Stories, he says, “are and have been my only methods of trying to make peace with a chaotic world.” He told himself after college, “If I want to call myself a playwright, I should probably go study it, too.” Yale accepts three playwriting students a year; he was one of them.

During McCraney’s third year, the Public Theater chose his play for its Under the Radar Festival. In January 2007, the Seidenmans flew to New York to see the opening of The Brothers Size, about the relationship between a straight-arrow auto repair shop owner and his hedonistic younger brother, lately back from prison. The next morning, Sylvan Seidenman discovered a review in the New York Times. He rushed to find Sandy, and the two stood in their hotel lobby reading it. “Listen closely,” wrote critic Jason Zinoman, “and you might hear that thrilling sound that is one of the main reasons we go to the theater, that beautiful music of a new voice.”

“It moved us to tears,” recalls Seidenman.

McCraney is best known for the Brother/Sister Plays, three interlinked works that New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley has called a “gorgeous trilogy.” The plays—In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet—depict life in fictional San Pere, Louisiana, near the bayou, but they also reference Yoruba myths.

Oya, a young woman living in the projects, is at the center of the first play. She is a high school track star whose legs “move so so / Fast they start to sing,” but she turns down a track scholarship at State to stay with her dying mother. Oya falls for a self-centered young man; another man, Ogun Size, loves her.

The second play is The Brothers Size, which follows Ogun’s relationship with his younger brother, Oshoosi. Ogun is both protective and critical of Oshoosi, who moves in after leaving prison and struggles with the push-pull between the need to work and his desire for long-deferred pleasures. Then Oshoosi’s cellmate Elegba arrives, and Oshoosi’s life becomes still more complicated.

Elegba is the absent father in the third play, in which the teenaged Marcus is the main character. Marcus feels stymied by the silence of adults when he asks about his father, and hounded by friends who needle him for hiding the fact that he’s “sweet.” His friend Terrell tells him: “You gay.… Ray Charles can see that / And he blind and dead.” (McCraney himself has been out since high school.)

Plot summary can’t capture the nature of McCraney’s work. “A Tarell McCraney script is always going to take us slightly out of reality,” says theater writer Mark Blankenship ’05MFA. “It eschews the linear narrative of realism and forces us to understand the storytelling of this play on its own terms.” He gives an example from Choir Boy (2013), a story of contentious young men at a prep school where status comes with singing in the choir. On one level, Blankenship says, it’s “a straightforward story. But structurally, McCraney chooses to break up that linear narrative with long stretches of gospel songs that don’t push the story forward. So when suddenly these realistic-seeming young men are jumping out of their school routine to sing these beautiful, symbolically powerful songs, I think, ‘OK! This is the unique world of this play. This is the reason I need to pay attention—because this is the part where I might be forced to comprehend something new.’”

Director Tina Landau ’84 says McCraney’s work approaches the Brechtian ideal of making the familiar strange—and also makes the strange familiar. “We look at something we think we know, and he wakes it up for us,’ says Landau, who along with McCraney is a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble. “At the same time, for many of us he makes a world that seems very foreign. We are peeking into something that is not us, but we leave the theater mysteriously recognizing that we are it, and it is us.”

 “I’m always working on a play—on multiple projects,” says McCraney. “There’s some in my head, there’s a few on the page, there’s a few that have already been written that I’m doing other productions of.” He does a lot of his writing on his phone while waiting in airport departure lounges. One afternoon in Miami, he lists where he’s gone recently: “I flew from here to Vegas to L.A. to New York to Chicago, Chicago to London, London to Miami, Miami to Chicago to London to New York to Haiti, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo. That’s in four months. I can’t even remember what I did before then.” The travel exhausts him more than the work.

He has to stop and think about the last time he had his own place. “For more than three months?” That was in New Haven, in 2007. What he misses: “Microwaves. Knowing where my stuff is.” He laughs.

Sylvan Seidenman and New World theater dean Patrice Bailey wonder if McCraney tries to do too much. “The only thing I worry about is that he spreads himself too thin,” says Bailey. At New World, he organized a 2010 reading of The Brothers Size that raised $6,000 to fund students traveling to auditions, and he drops by occasionally to teach a class. “You don’t expect to see Tarell, and all of the sudden he’s in the hallway. He’s never forgotten the school.”

McCraney says he wakes up each day looking forward to his work. But he does think about director Ann Bogart’s observation that creative and destructive energy are similar. “You burn something by creating,” he says.

He finds serenity through faith, faith that is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition but not limited by it; all religions, he says, offer “the peace of knowing we will never truly understand everything outside of ourselves. There is an unknown that will always be unknown.” Is that reassuring? “To let go and know you can’t control everything and you don’t command the wind and the rains and the storms? Yeah, there is a peace in that.”

Asked if he feels angry at God for how much his mother suffered, McCraney laughs ironically. “Why didn’t He protect her? The same could be said about the people in the world. Why didn’t we protect her? Why didn’t we do anything?

“I rarely get mad,” he continues. “People don’t do things normally out of malice. Most times, someone bumps into you, they don’t even know they bumped into you.”

McCraney is balancing on a bicycle just outside the Colony Theater, one long leg rooting him to the pavement. The free matinee is over, the students are gone, and a half dozen actors surround him, bantering or just lingering in the wan January sunlight.

By the end of the run, the ten actors under McCraney’s direction will have presented Antony and Cleopatra to 6,000 students—young people who reflect the ethnic and socioeconomic mélange that is Dade County. McCraney is not, he says, “fooling myself into thinking they’re going to walk out of there Shakespeare aficionados. But one might. And even if one doesn’t, the real win is to give them the opportunity to see it, the opportunity to talk about it, to experience it, to have it within the confines of their minds.

“The great thing is to give them the opportunity. God only knows what they’ll do with it.”