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Playwright's elusive dream: Conquering his hometown of Miami

Already a rising star in the theater world, Alvin McCraney hasn't given up on one of his few unfulfilled dreams: opening a theater company in his hometown of Miami.

BY CHRISTINE DOLEN, cdolen@MiamiHerald.com

mccraney PRINCETON, N.J. -- Tarell Alvin McCraney moves with the grace of the dancer he once wanted to be. He is tall (6 feet 3 inches), slender and stylish in his perfectly pressed shirt and tie worn over snug black jeans.

This 28-year-old playwright is both celebrated and humble, quietly observant and inspiring, a gay black artist who has made it his mission, he says, ``to give voice to the voiceless.''

And at the moment, the young man whose early life and artistic identity were forged through some impossibly hard times in Miami is also one of the hottest theater talents on both sides of the Atlantic.

Through June 21, the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., is presenting three plays by McCraney, a linked trilogy he calls The Brother/Sister Plays that was co-produced by New York's Public Theater (where it will play in the fall). Last month, he received the inaugural New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award. Soon, he'll fly back to London, where he is International Playwright in Residence with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), though he'll also spend a week working with legendary director Peter Brook on a project in Poland.

He is writing new plays for the RSC, Manhattan Theatre Club and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Though it has only been two years since he earned his master's degree in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, McCraney has had his work produced in New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, New Orleans, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, London, Barcelona and Dublin.

But not, so far, in Miami.

Yet here's the remarkable thing: Though McCraney has been artistically ignored in his hometown, he has a dream that by the time he turns 30 on Oct. 17, 2010, he will be back in Miami starting a theater company.

''I never intended to be just a playwright,'' says the red-hot writer, who has also acted, danced and directed. ``Making a community of theater artists is also part of my job.''

A UNIQUE GIFT

Many of the artists who have creatively crossed paths with McCraney attest that his is a thrilling, distinctive new voice in the world of theater.

Emily Mann, McCarter's artistic director, remembers reading her first McCraney play while he was still at Yale.

'By the second page, I said, `We're doing his work,' '' Mann says. ``His use of language is absolutely distinctive. If you gave me two lines, I'd know they were his. He reminds me of [Federico García] Lorca, Nilo [Cruz], Tennessee Williams, but he's absolutely himself. He's a theatrical poet. His work is very musical and funny -- and it can rip your heart out.''

Director Tina Landau has known McCraney since his undergraduate days at Chicago's DePaul University. She staged the world premiere of In the Red and Brown Water, the first of the Brother/Sister Plays, at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre and directed it again for the McCarter. Next season, she'll direct the entire trilogy -- In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet -- at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, where the plays will run from January to May.

McCraney's writing, she observes via e-mail, ``embraces a staggering spectrum from the poetic to the prosaic -- it is both gorgeously literate and starkly vernacular. It manages to somehow sound both like rich verse and the street language you'd hear on the corner. . . . Tarell fuses things together -- all kinds of stories, myths, histories, ritual, headline news . . .''

Robert O'Hara, the director and playwright who staged Brothers Size and Marcus for the McCarter, says McCraney's writing has ``a poetic vulgarity which is absolutely breathtaking. He comes from a real place. There's beauty in the horror of it all.''

Truth, too. The Brother/Sister Plays are his own inventions, but embedded in them are threads from the lives of his sister Keonme (the inspiration for the self-sacrificing Oya in In the Red and Brown Water), his brothers Jason and Paul (The Brothers Size) and, in Marcus, his own experiences as a gay kid in a tough urban neighborhood. The plays, says cast member Marc Damon Johnson, are ``epic, timeless and universal.''

''Tarell went back in time to simplistic, dream-like theater,'' says Alano Miller, an Orlando native who plays Marcus. ``We say the words, and you believe. You visualize everything.''

THE BAD TIMES

McCraney's stew of influences is wide-ranging: Brook's ideas in The Empty Space, Lorca's Yerma, the musicality of August Wilson's work, the poetry of Essex Hemphill, the choreography of Alvin Ailey, the structure of classical theater, Yoruban mythology, the way Miami performer-playwright Teo Castellanos (the man McCraney calls ''my father in theater'') taught him to turn the hard experiences of life into transformative art.

Those tough times? As a child and teen, McCraney had enough to last a lifetime. His mother struggled with drug addiction, developed AIDS and died less than two months after he graduated with honors from DePaul. While he was still a kid, he became a surrogate parent to his two younger brothers and their sister, whose sacrifices in caring for their mother are reflected in In the Red and Brown Water. There was little money, sometimes no food or electricity, and Hurricane Andrew destroyed the place where the family was living. Once, after McCraney moved to his father's home in Liberty City, he found himself trailed by bullies tossing rocks and yelling ''faggot'' in his direction.

He found theater as a teen when he joined a troupe run by Castellanos at the Village South.

''It saved me,'' McCraney often says.

There he learned to express himself as a performer and writer, to turn pain into powerful drama. When McCraney created a piece called Crack House and performed it at a substance-abuse program, ''by the end, the audience would be bawling,'' Castellanos recalls.

High school at the New World School of the Arts, college at DePaul, grad school at Yale and growing acclaim have taken McCraney to a different place. Inevitably, his world has changed, as he collaborates with some of theater's greatest talents, jets all over the world, collects honors for his work.

Yet, say those who know him, McCraney is fundamentally the same focused guy.

''Tarell is so not taken with himself,'' Mann says. ``He's modest and humble. What he wants to do is give back. He's just such an inspiration.''

Brian Tyree Henry created the role of Oshoosi Size, a man newly out of prison, when he and McCraney were at Yale and has played it in seven productions of TheBrothers Size. His ongoing friendship with McCraney has allowed him to watch the playwright navigate the whirlwind of fame.

''Tarell is doing great,'' Henry says. ``His spirit is just huge. . . . He really believes in what he puts out there. He knows the audience, he knows the stories he want to tell. . . He has found his light, and he knows how to shine it.''

BRINGING IT HOME

The place McCraney wants his light to shine brightest is Miami. His sprawling dream is to come home, start a free theater program for kids in an old Overtown recreation center, present free outdoor Shakespeare with great actors in a place like Bayfront Park in the winter, develop ''homegrown plays in the summer'' by creating something like the Sundance Institute Playwrights Lab. He could see a restaurant/performance space like the Public Theater's Joe's Pub in Coconut Grove, the place he'd like to settle and raise a family.

He could, of course, continue becoming an ever-more-famous playwright. But he says simply, ``If I'm thinking these things, I ought to be doing them.''

He is learning how to run a theater company by working at some of the world's best. Onstage and off, he is bringing his dreams to fruition. His vision for his hometown is just another dream, albeit an ambitious one.

Landau, for one, believes in McCraney's passion for connection.

``Tarell cares about, loves, nurtures and reaches out to audiences. . . . He talks, he shares, he is a true citizen of the world. His generosity is immense. . . . The only thing that seems to be affecting Tarell with all the acclaim is his awareness of the opportunity it brings. He is able to think more radically about how he might serve the communities he wants to. To dream bigger or newer or riskier projects.''

Creating a major new theater in Miami, McCraney says, is his dream.

''I really care about my community. There's got to be somebody in there working on the side of young people who are dying. Miami includes Liberty City and Overtown. They aren't inconsequential. I get very passionate about that,'' he says. ``I don't mind devoting my 30s and 40s to working on that.''

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