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Tarell McCraney gives back

Tarell London Tarell Alvin McCraney, one of the most talked-about and celebrated young American playwrights, is going to turn 30 on Sunday.  The Miamian, who grew up in Liberty City, is still in the beginning phase of a career that has already earned him affiliations with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Great Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company.  Still, entering a new decade is special.  But instead of partying or expecting gifts, McCraney is giving his own gift to his high school alma mater, the New World School of the Arts.

This Friday at 6 p.m., McCraney will do a VIP meet-and-greet, signing copies of his Brother/Sister Plays trilogy -- In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size (which McCraney will direct at GableStage next summer) and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet.  Then at 7:30 p.m., he and two actor friends -- Glenn Davis and fellow Steppenwolf member Jon Michael Hill -- will read scenes from McCraney's various plays (without regard to gender, he says with a smile).  The purpose is to raise money so that New World's graduating high school seniors can travel for all-important auditions for colleges and acting programs.  McCraney got that kind of help from people who believed in him when he went on to Chicago's DePaul University and then to the play-writing master's degree program at Yale University, so he figures now it's his turn to give back.

But Friday's event, he said recently, is just step one in his grander plan to make a difference in his hometown.

"I want to start a free outdoor Shakespeare festival, ala Canada's Stratford Festival or what the Public Theater does in Central Park,"  McCraney says.  "I want to do three shows every winter here, for free, and to create a company that has four or five playwrights writing for it.  Then I want to start a youth company in Overtown for 30 to 40 kids, from eighth grade through the senior year in high school.  I want to help them get the same kind of education I got at Yale and at the Royal Shakespeare company.  And I want to come home."

Currently, McCraney is always on the move, traveling to England where he works with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to Chicago for Steppenwolf, to the theaters all over the United States that are doing his work.  But he has dug in to pull off this New World birthday benefit, in part to demonstrate that he has what it takes to become the artistic director of his future Miami company.

McCraney knows it will take big, big bucks to make his long-range dreams for Miami a reality.  He applied for a Knight Foundation grant for the free outdoor Shakespeare festival a couple of years ago and didn't get it, not that he was surprised:  "You can't give a kid $2.5 million...But I wanted to show that I had an idea for the arts, and then get the community to buy into it."

McCraney has been picking the brains of artistic directors at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public, getting advice on how best to build his hometown company.  Though it will require him to be "a lot more political and out there than I want to be," the goal is worth it.

And personally, he adds, "I want to come home. I understand this place better than anywhere else I've been."

So temporarily, anyway, McCraney is back and making a difference. Friday's VIP event at new world costs $100 and happens at New World's eighth-floor Louise O. Gerrits Theater, 25 NE Second St. in Miami (call Rafael Maldonado at 305-237-3753 for info).  The 7:30 p.m. staged reading costs $30 and takes place in New World's Dance Studio, also on the eighth floor.  For info or tickets, call 305-237-3541 or visit New World's web site.

 (Photo by George Osodi/Aleim Magazine)