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How Tarell Alvin McCraney Moved from ‘Moonlight’ to Broadway — and Beyond

How Tarell Alvin McCraney Moved from ‘Moonlight’ to Broadway — and Beyond

After DePaul, McCraney took a year off, during which he traveled to Georgia to bury his mother and worked briefly in Miami theater. Then he took his talents to Yale, as a student in the same graduate playwriting program he now oversees. Part of his application was an early version of the script for “Moonlight,” a largely autobiographical story written around the time of his mother’s death. It was the overwhelming intensity of his emotions at the time, he thinks, that created the heightened poetry of the film. He was unlikely, he told me, to write anything quite like that in the future. “I was 23 when I wrote that. I don’t want to be 23 again. I don’t want to be in that much pain ever again.”

If beauty is the pillar at one end of his work, pain is at the other. McCraney digs unflinchingly into the suffering that pulses at the center of his character’s lives. I asked him about the concern some black artists and storytellers have — that our work may simply boil down to trading in black pain for rent money. “If the question, for you, about peddling black pain is appropriate,” he replied, “you also have to think to yourself, well, why am I in so much pain?” It doesn’t make sense, he suggested, to demand that an artist produce joy when his or her inner life is still processing grief. He then talked about the rapper Lil Wayne, who famously suffered a gunshot wound at age 12. For years, he said the gun had gone off by accident; only last year did he reveal that the childhood wound was from a suicide attempt. “He talks about the time that he shot himself because it still haunts him,” McCraney said. “He woke up in a pool of blood. He’s, like, engaged in that, and going through it. Why is it important for us to be like, ‘Hey, get over that. Where are the dandelions?’ ”

It was not long after McCraney’s graduation from Yale that he mounted his first production at Steppenwolf, became the group’s 43rd member and wrote and directed work for the Public Theater, Center Theater Group and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he directed interpretations of “Hamlet” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” “The only thing that kept me going,” he told me of that time, thinking of the second play, “was: I’ve got to bring this play back to the little Haitian girls who live across the street from me, who have never seen themselves as royalty.” Around this time, Barry Jenkins came across “Moonlight” and asked McCraney for permission to rework it into a shooting script, prompting McCraney’s first foray into feature film. Steven Soderbergh’s film of McCraney’s second feature, a basketball drama titled “High Flying Bird,” is scheduled for Netflix release in February — and in addition to the Broadway run of “Choir Boy,” the Oprah-led OWN network has ordered a season of McCraney’s first television project, the semi-autobiographical “David Makes Man,” currently filming in Orlando.

Allison Davis, a writer on “David Makes Man,” remembers walking into the writers’ room with some nervousness. “He could have thrown his ego around that room, and it would have been justified,” she told me by phone from Los Angeles. Instead, she was disarmed when McCraney suggested the staff begin by taking an online quiz to determine which Harry Potter house each person would belong to. “Then we started talking about what all the houses represented, and then we started talking about what in our backgrounds made us answer the way we did, and it became this very deep discussion about language and trauma and influences, and we were talking about this for like three hours.”

This ability to merge the mundane with the profound, to draw complex emotions out of many different people and sources, is a hallmark of McCraney’s work. “ ‘David Makes Man’ pulls from so many references,” Davis said. “The Bible is up in there, Yoruba is up in there, Miami street culture is up in there, ball culture is up in there. He weaves it into this wonderful tapestry, and he treats them all with equal reverence.”

“I have never — and I mean this — never encountered a script for television with this depth of value,” says Phylicia Rashad, one of the show’s stars. “Because he is bringing cultural influence that, to my knowledge, has not been seen, but exists.”

There are not many people from Liberty City, Miami, directing for the Royal Shakespeare Company, winning Oscars and administering programs at Yale. McCraney is consistently in rarefied air. This goes beyond W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness.” To be a black queer man from poverty and enjoy accolades in some of the most exclusory spaces in Western theater doesn’t just call for the maintenance of multiple consciousnesses; it requires a strategy for keeping them working smoothly together. “When people say, ‘I’m tired,’ ” McCraney told me, “it’s not necessarily like, ‘I’ve been working in a cotton field all day.’ There’s tired, like — you just don’t know how much pre-thinking, post-thinking, anxiousness, anxiety, that one has to toggle in order to deal with the United States. Not just white people, but the way that the United States is set up.”

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