Successful young black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is being touted as the next August Wilson, and his play "The Brothers Size" will be staged soon at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
It reads like the plot of an inspirational TV movie.
A shy, sensitive African-American boy grows up in a poor, crime-infested Miami enclave. As a child he shuttles between the homes of his crack-addicted mother (who will later die of AIDS-related causes) and his devout Christian grandparents.
It’s hard going, but the boy’s creative writing talent is encouraged by teachers, and he goes on to earn degrees from DePaul and Yale universities.
By the time he reaches his late 20s, his plays are being hailed internationally, and presented by Off Broadway’s Public Theatre and England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as Chicago’s Steppenwolf, Seattle Repertory Theatre and other regional companies.
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This is, in a very abridged form, the saga of Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose lauded drama “The Brothers Size” will soon receive its Northwest debut at Seattle Rep.
Melding African legends and modern American subject matter, this middle work in McCraney’s “Brothers/ Sisters Plays” trilogy concerns the triangular tensions among a hardworking shop-owner in Bayou country, the delinquent brother he tries to set straight and a manipulative ex-con who comes between them.
McCraney has enjoyed considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic, but at 30 he’s still a work in progress.
He’s an evolving, openly gay theater artist who feels a keen sense of responsibility — to his community, his many mentors, his belief in what theater can accomplish. And he’s well aware of the weighty expectations placed on him — including the claim that McCraney is the theatrical heir apparent to the late, revered Seattle dramatist August Wilson, one of his mentors.
“Myself and other African-American playwrights of my generation, like Marcus Gardley and Katori Hall, have been passed, whether we like it or not, a mantle,” McCraney said by phone from London. (He is there completing a new play, “American Trade,” for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as the RSC’s international writer in residence.)
“I realize there’s a responsibility thrust on me. I can either pick it up or fight it. Sometimes I shrug it off, and sometimes I engage and converse with it. It’s complex.”
McCraney’s insights into human complexity, his poetic gift and willingness to drill down into the rugged and largely unsung lives of people like those he grew up with have won him the admiration of critics and theater cohorts.
New York Times critic Ben Brantley praised McCraney for writing “with a passion and urgency that can’t be faked and in a style that makes artifice feel like instinct, even as it invests ordinary lives with the grandeur of ancient gods.”
Those attributes were evident, if not yet well-developed, in Seattle Rep’s 2008 staging of “The Breach,” a triptych of plays by a trio of authors about New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. McCraney’s contribution, a heart-wrenching mini-drama about black family members trapped on a rooftop in the storm, was by far the most compelling segment.
“Tarell’s writing takes powerful, stark poetry and cuts it with a unique theatrical language,” commented stage producer Mark Russell, who boosted McCraney’s career by showcasing his work several years ago at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in New York. “Tarell’s is the most singular voice I have experienced in the theater in the past six years.”
Valerie Curtis-Newton, artistic director of the Lansberry Project at ACT Theatre, values McCraney for meshing the real and mythic in his work, incorporating hip-hop-generation sensibilities, and for delving into “a nonurban black experience,” which she believes is underrepresented in theater.
“I hope the writing I do is timeless,” reflected the soft-spoken McCraney, who has a politely serious, but not humorless, air about him. “I hope people from all walks of life, and from any era, can identify with my plays.”
But he also is aware of his less-fortunate peers. “It would be very irresponsible for me as a person, not just as an artist, to do what I feel like a lot of what society is doing to certain people my age — turning their backs on them.”
On a recent visit to his grandmother’s home, he recounted, “the neighborhood was blocked off. A man about my age had killed two police officers and been shot himself. It’s an area thick with drugs and crime and violence. In the past six months, we’ve lost three or four kids under 16 to gunfire.
“It hurts me, ” said the playwright, the emotion evident in his voice, “and I don’t know how many times it’s brought me to tears. My work has to reflect that reality, and be influenced by it. No matter how much I’ve tried to not be political or engage in social commentary, it ends up being part of it.”
Lately, McCraney’s globe-trotting schedule and prolific output have been so demanding, he hasn’t had time to establish a place of his own and is living out of a suitcase. But whenever he can, McCraney devotes time to theatrical endeavors that reach out to youth.
His condensed adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” for the RSC is currently touring England. “These great stories retell themselves,” he explained. “You can take [Shakespeare's] ‘King John’ and set it in gang-torn L.A., and it reinvents itself for our own time.”
So far, out of the dozen plays he’s penned, McCraney’s best-known works are “Wigged Out” (an Off Broadway hit about rival teams of black drag queens), and the three-drama “Brother/Sister Plays” — all set in the same milieu, and composed of “In the Red and Brown Water” and “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” as well as “The Brothers Size.”
McCraney describes “The Brothers Size” as “more of a chamber piece, it’s like going in to watch three actors to create an intimate moment. The other plays deal with a whole community, but this is more of a folk song.” (One of the actors in Juliette Carrillo’s staging for the Rep is Eddie R. Brown III, a friend of McCraney’s since high school.)
Though embraced by the largely white audiences at regional theaters, McCraney candidly noted his work “divides the black community. Older African Americans are often very heated about it, they feel offended that I brought up these difficult subjects in the theater. But young people tell me, ‘I know what this is, I know what this life you’re writing about is like.’ “
A willingness to thoughtfully confront nitty-gritty realities in the black community with a blend of realistic and poetic language links McCraney’s oeuvre to that of Wilson, inarguably the most prominent black male dramatist of the previous generation.
Observed Curtis-Newton, “We still have a battle going on over whether the purpose of art for the black community is to ennoble us and make us appear without flaws, or to critique our circumstances. August found the way to do both things, to talk about elements of the culture that are uplifting, while not ignoring the darker things. I’m not sure Tarell’s there yet, but he’s clearly moving in that direction too.”
In addition to being mentored by such respected playwright-teachers as Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage, McCraney came under Wilson’s wing while assisting on the Yale debut of his final play, “Radio Golf.”
“August was very generous with his time,” he recalled, “which was a great lesson to me. He’d have students around him all day, even though he was very ill. It just showed me, your quality of life is better when you give. It gave the quality of his life, which was so uncertain at that point, such joy.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org