Academy Award-winning writer and actor Tarell Alvin McCraney talks about his semi-autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” and the Academy Award-winning film “Moonlight” that followed. He discusses the centrality of Florida to his work, and the importance of building a sense of community above all else. McCraney’s recent work includes the TV series “David Makes Man” on the OWN Network, the Broadway play “Choir Boy,” and a run of shows as part of the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
Josh Hamilton: I'm Josh Hamilton.
Michael Kantor: And I'm Michael Kantor.
Josh Hamilton: And this is the American Masters Podcast, where we have conversations with the people who change us. Today we talk to writer Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: There are so many nuances to what it means to come of age. You start seeing all kinds of things that are socialized at a very early age and crystallized there. I have a deep and abiding interest in the future and in order for us to really invest in the future, we have to investigate the past.
Josh Hamilton: It was back in 2003 that Tarell Alvin McCraney first wrote, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
Michael Kantor: I think he was a graduate student who was writing up a piece that was never published, a semi-autobiographical play that dealt with personal trauma and his own coming-of-age in Florida and it was shelved for over a decade.
Josh Hamilton: Until it eventually would be adapted and go on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards at the 2016 film Moonlight.
Michael Kantor: That, of course, was the famous Academy Awards where they gave the Best Picture to La La Land and then took it back and gave it to Moonlight.
Josh Hamilton: Makes me uncomfortable just remembering that. Yeah, which also won McCraney an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. So, with Moonlight, his Broadway play Choirboy and his most recent TV show, David Makes Man, McCraney seems to be sharing his stories everywhere. Born in Liberty City, Florida, he spent his youth pursuing the arts, both as an actor and writer, ultimately graduating from Yale, where he is currently the chair and professor in the practice of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. But his work consistently returns to Florida, a place he still calls home. Michael, how did you first get introduced to Tarell’s work?
Michael Kantor: I met Tarell through my sister-in-law, Tina Landau. They're both members of the noted theater company in Chicago, Steppenwolf, and started seeing his work way back at the Vineyard Theater with a show called Wig Out, Head of Passes at the Public Theater and most recently, Choirboy on Broadway.
Josh Hamilton: Michael recently sat down with McCraney at the Yale broadcast studio to talk.
Michael Kantor: It feels like the place where you grew up, and its people, is essential to a lot of your work. Tell us about Knight Manor.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, first of all, thanks for having me. Knight Manor was a housing projects that was built, I believe, in the late 50s and 60s in the Liberty City area of Miami, which is classified as inner-city Miami proper. One of the few areas that, you know, you can name that's within Miami proper. And it's very close to Liberty Square, which is one of the-- if not the oldest-- but certainly the oldest federal housing projects in the country, which is where we filmed Moonlight. Barry Jenkins and I lived there for a period of time. We bounced around to many, we lived in Liberty Square. We lived in Knight Manor. We lived in a Holiday Inn for a while. And so, what was interesting about Knight Manor or about any of those housing projects is that they fundamentally have, what I call, the essence of Miami in them. They are absolutely of Miami, made their ways into the songs of rappers and the artists who come from that place. But from about 9 to 12, I lived in a place called Homestead, which is about 50 to 49 miles south of Miami in a city called Homestead. It's in Florida. It's in Miami Dade County. And it is night and day different than Liberty City in that it's not inner city at all. It's rural. It is surrounded by cow pastures and, you know, horse grazing and strawberry and melon patches and fields. And yet there's a housing project right in the middle of all of that where what one can classify or think about as, you know, the problems of the housing projects exist. And the difference is that across the street there are cows grazing. And across a border there are, you know, what I like to say, where the NRA and the Trump signs are in English again. Whereas in Miami, they're in Spanish. So, it's, you know, the divisions between socioeconomic and political stances are stark. Way more stark. And this wasn't in the 60s, the 70s or even the 80s. This was, you know, ‘91. And then Hurricane Andrew came and flattened everything except for the building that I lived in. It destroyed a lot of what was inside the buildings, prompting us to move back to Liberty Square. Liberty City.
Michael Kantor: Well, it seems like you've drawn on the characters from these different places in a lot of different works of yours.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, the places themselves are characters. The very nature and the thing that's so strange about Florida is that, you know, you get characters and ideas from seeing folks and names in the news, right? There's the caricature of “Florida Man.” And yet Florida itself, because of the environment, because of its proximity to urban and rural areas, its mixture of religious practices, it being a sort of precipice point. It's a gateway to the Americas, as it's often called. You just get a lot of different influences and a lot of culture in the air, because even in Miami, there's so many parts of the place that you can hear different accents, different lilts, different languages. There was a person on Twitter the other day who said, you know, “it's really hard being in Miami and being in a place where you don't speak the language.” And there are portions of Miami you can live in, and even the apartment that I have in Miami, a lot of my neighbors do not speak English--mostly Spanish, but I've also lived in neighborhoods where everybody spoke Creole. That's an astonishing feat for an American city. And it has been that way. And Miami's young history allows that to sort of live and be. I also quickly noticed that Miami is a place that governs itself from tourism and on tourism. And so, because, you know, tourism isn't paying us to be unique. Some of these things are getting washed away. And it's important that I tell the story of those things before they all go away. You know, Allapattah is a neighborhood of mostly Dominican descent--American citizens who are Dominican. And, again, you can be in that neighborhood and hear a different kind of Spanish than you would if you were, say, in Little Havana. And that's important to note. One of our students in the school of drama is from Nicaragua. And you would know that Sweetwater in Miami-Dade County, has one of the largest populations of Nicaraguans outside of Nicaragua. Those things are really important to me because that means there are lives, there are stories, there are happenstances that can only happen in Miami. Similarly to the way, you know, I think De Niro said it best about, you know, New York and how you can inhabit, you know, many different lands in New York in a single span of a train ride. Well, if we had a good train system in Miami--and since we don't--then I'll have to just tell you the stories of it.
Michael Kantor: Now growing up there, did you know you wanted to tell these stories or did that aspect come later, like, after you tried out acting?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: They were one and the same. I mean, I think, you know, I'm lucky in that I found this act of storytelling to be active. I didn't understand storytelling meant, you know, you had to sit down somewhere alone and write something. I understood the performance of storytelling to be communal, to be a practical thing that you did in front of folks or with people. Be it from, you know, again, we have a very outside culture because of the weather so you see people on their porch or on their storefront telling stories, even if it's just of the day and there's an animation to it. There is a, you know, you think people are actually in a fight when they're really just telling a story to each other. You get socialized to hear that and see that so young that you think to yourself, "oh, well, this is a part of who I am." And it's not until later that someone tells you, you know, "oh, you have to write that down so I can see it." And then, what's really interesting, is that you have to write that down so I can see it so that someone else can pick it back up and perform it again. It's sort of this weird process that you have to, you know, sort of backtrack. You have to learn backwards. But I didn't understand writing as the form of storytelling. It was more so documenting. And so, I had no choice about that portion because that was everywhere. Even if I was in the most sacred and secular places, it could be at the park. It could be at my grandfather's church. There was always some understanding of translating story. And I knew I needed to be a part of that because stories were the way in which I understood the world. They ordered the chaos enough for me that I could sustain it. And in that way, I mean, I know I've said some controversial things about theater saving my life, which I mean, but I don't mean it in the nuance of like, "oh, I went to see, you know, West Side Story and it saved me." That's not true. What I mean is the act of theater, the activeness of what we do in the theater, the coming together of community, the ability to use story to shape our lives and to give us hope and to see a way forward, that saved my life. If I didn't have that operation, if I didn't have that function, I don't know if I would have survived.
Michael Kantor: So, do you find that the telling of the stories of your--painful stories--from your childhood or turbulent moments to be kind of healing or is it just kind of getting them down, and then it's the community that buoys you?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: In theater, always, community is at the fore. There's been times, and I think this is actually true of everything I do, which probably pisses a lot of folks off-- but I don't really even care if the thing goes up. As long as we get in a room with people and we go through the process of trying to put the thing together and listening to each other, I'm so excited about that that I'm very happy to go home and be, you know, if I could get paid to do that, I would totally do it. I do, in a way. I mean, I do in teaching. I mean, I get to listen to stories and talk about the best way to execute them and try some things and you're gonna get to go home.
Michael Kantor: It's interesting to me, you know, as a playwright, we think of somebody who's alone and, you know, struggling with a blank page when in fact, you're always touting collaboration. That strikes me as really unusual from a playwright’s perspective.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, again, it's about best practices, right. And there are many a playwright who love the model that you just described, right? Them, by themselves, toiling with, you know, wrestling with the angel. Then, sort of, bringing this thing in and, you know, telling the director to make it happen. And that works in some places and in some places it's preferred. It's not the theater that I come from. It's not the kind of theater that I made as a child. It's not the kind of theater that I was exposed to. I didn't see a play on Broadway till I was 19 years old. I didn't see a play in a professional theater until I was like 15. And yet I'd been doing street theater, watching street performances, seeing parades, seeing street festivals all my life. And if I had need to tell you which one is more engaging, you can kind of just look at my work and see, right? You can see what kept drawing me out of this kind of cushy velvety seat that I could easily fall asleep in and bringing the pageants and the parades into the theater or outside of them. You know, I remember one of my deepest regrets at the Yale School of Drama, as a student here, is that I kept trying to convince them to do some of my pieces outside because that's what they were meant to do. They were literally built to be done outside, in the round. And they just kept telling me no, because of insurance purposes or all kinds of things. And I was just like, I get that completely. But this play, set in this quiet room, doesn't allow for the actors to really stretch out and find what they need to in the script. You only are gonna get that if you're in five inch heels and, you know, which on me makes you 6'8'' and you are trying to get the attention of people who are passing by, busy. And you want to draw their attention to, you know, age related complications. Well, you're gonna have to do a whole bunch of performing and you're gonna have to do a whole bunch of tactic-finding. And that's how your script is made, right? That's what to write down. Because in the moment of, "how did I get their attention? How long could I sustain it? Did they hear me? Did they walk away doing an action, feeling an action? Were they confused?" Like, that's how you figure it out. If you've got a captive audience, you've got two, you know, your options become much more limited and you've got two things to worry about: if they're gonna fall asleep, because a lot of them do, and what preconceived notions they came into the room with you having. Now, if they encounter you on the street, all bets are off because you're on the street. So, everybody's on high alert. And that's important. It's an important place to get people in their vulnerability. When people come in, they think, "oh, I'm open. I'm coming into this theater space, I'm open." It's actually not. You’re coming into this place that more than likely you subscribe to, you've been before, right? And that's just not-- the only people that's not true for is people who don't go to the theater often. And then so often are we catering to the folks who go all the time, right? That the people who don't come often feel like they're being left out. So, it's one of those things where I'm always, sort of, thinking about how we talk to our audience and why. And as a playwright, or as a person who creates plays, I'm often thinking about how generous can I be to the people who are walking in here and when I'm not here to enforce that generosity, what can I leave as a calling card for those folks who've never been here and want to come back? That's a hard job. But I think, you know, there's room. That's why a lot of playwrights, especially from the older guard, love film, right? Because they get to be the screenwriter who was in the corner doing X and they hand it off to somebody and they go film it.
Michael Kantor: That's what it is.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Yeah. And that's what it is. And I think that can be great. But I, you know, I'm interested in community. I'm interested in those conversations. I think those things sustain me as a human being.
Michael Kantor: Speak, if you would, to that. The genesis of In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and how that ended up bringing you to the stage of the Oscar celebration.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, I think, I mean, In Moonlight I wrote in 2003. And my mother just died of AIDS related complications. And thinking back on it, a lot of what brought me to that moment had to do with--and Barry Jenkins, who was the director and adapter of that piece, talks about it-- is that he felt like he was looking at a lot of his own memories. He was. He was looking at a lot of memories that I was losing at the time. And I thought to myself, “well, my mother's not here with me and if I don't write these things down, I won't remember them. I won't remember how they happened. I won't remember, you know, why they're important to me.” And so, I did. I spent a summer really trying to put down things, shards of memory, that I thought were important to me. A lot of the moments in Moonlight necessarily don't add up to a logical sense, but they add up to an emotional sense. And I just wanted to put them in an order that I could. And it was my first time writing a screenplay, so it was a bit of a mess--is a bit of a mess. And I left it there. I just sort of left it alone and continued to write plays because I had written a few plays by then and In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was this first crack at a feature--or not even, mid-length-feature-thing--and I left it alone. I think I did a little bit of revising on it when I came to the School of Drama a year later and put it in a drawer and Barry saw the kind of fevered dream version of that script and thought, you know, I have a way of ordering this that will allow an audience to--in community, right--understand or engage this. And I thought, "That's good. That's good, because I don't and I can't." And, I think, in a lifetime, you collaborate with people who, not only understand your emotionality, but then get what you're trying to say and can help you frame something in a way that really makes sense of the kind of chaos that you're trying to order. And, you know, I've been very fortunate that happens with, you know, Tina Landau, who is a constant collaborator on my plays. She sort of sees the chaos and finds ways to order it, which, again, it takes a level of backing away from it and allowing her to do that. It's a level of trust, yes, but also a level of respect because you respect that that person, too, wants community. And so, with Barry, the same thing happened. There was a person who wanted people to engage in a world that they didn't often see. And from a place of real love, not a place of, you know, trying to make money. Really just from love, trying to show-- in the best way he could-- that world. And so, he did that, showed me the versions that he'd created, and I thought they were stunning and also thought that only, you know, the 15 people from where we were who went to see independent films would see it and that would be it.
Michael Kantor: So, you were just totally shocked at the response.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Barry and I really were shocked. And then the shocks kept coming. Even up until the last best picture nomination and then the best picture announcement. I mean, we were constantly surprised and grateful. But again, if you asked any of us, before the Toronto Film Festival, if we thought we were going to win three Oscars for this piece, if we said yes to that--
Michael Kantor: Everyone would have laughed.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, we would have been lying. You know what I mean? We were excited to be there. We thought we'd created something beautiful. We had really great artists who are like family. We still are very much, most of us, in contact. Andre Holland is a person that I've collaborated on many things from Wig Out in 2007 or 8 till now. And, you know, we keep in contact with each other. We try to support each other on all the things we do. We were that way not because we thought we were going to win Academy Awards together, but because we really cared about-- again, it came from a place of love. We really cared about what we wanted to do. We really wanted to engage each other with it.
Michael Kantor: Well, you'd already won a MacArthur Genius Award. You'd had lots of plays produced, how much would you say that winning The Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay has changed your path?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I felt the need to concentrate or at least reorder my steps, If anything. I thought, well, I can't keep doing this. Like I can't keep having these moments that everybody's like, "you should be happy." And I'm not. There's clearly something not connecting. And so out of that actually came the drive to finish this television show that I currently have just wrote and produced for the OWN network called David Makes Man. In fact, Andre Holland, again, was one of the people who championed me working on it. But it was a show about, you know, where I got my work ethic from and where I learned to, you know, wear so many masks in different places. How did I end up at an Ivy League school coming from, you know, dirt poverty? Whenever you had a floor that looked onto the dirt, you were dirt poverty.
Michael Kantor: That's actually a line in the show, right? Where he's giving a report. He says, "I'm from dirt."
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I'm literally from dirt. Literally from dirt. And the things that I learned in that process were a lot about, you know, gave me a lot of resentment and shame about who I was and then trying to figure all of that out in this world, on these platforms that were mostly white and patriarchal. And then trying to, you know, be happy in that. And I couldn't figure out why I wasn't. A lot of it started with, you know, not being my full self. When that began to happen for me is what I wanted to investigate. So, I created this show called David Makes Man, which is about that--about the times, as a young person, we sought to make up who we are going to be in the world and then we spend the next 50 years being that person.
Michael Kantor: So, I find it really interesting that Moonlight, Your first Broadway production Choirboy, which you'd done earlier and this new TVC series, David Makes Man, they're all very personal. From my perspective, they're sort of drawn from the same well of inspiration. What do you think it is about these works and this moment in our culture that makes them resonate so strongly?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: For me, and what's necessary for me, is that I have a deep and abiding interest in the future. And in order for us to really invest in the future, we have to investigate the past and so I am using myself as a template looking at the fissures created along the fault line of coming of age or into adulthood. And for black youth, for black youth on the margins of poverty, for black youth along the margins of poverty and "divergent" sexual identity, that is "thought to be queer" and "not the norm," there are so many nuances to what it means to come of age. It could be just focusing on the first love you ever had, It can be looking at the way in which you think of yourself as labor in this country. I mean, add to that, you know, the way in which black women function in this society--or try to function in the society. You start seeing all kinds of things that are socialized at a very early age and crystallized there. I love this idea in the Torah, where it talks about why, you know, you had to be in the desert for those many generations before you could see the promised land. And it was basically, I mean, the Torah and the Old Testament are pretty mean about it, but it was basically so that the old generation died out, so that nobody who was ever born under the suffering of slavery and the old systems would bring that system into the new place. Well, I am a little bit different than that. I believe that we've got to interrogate the systems. We've got to interrogate why the adults we are function under those systems and then unteach that or take those away from the folks who are coming up now. So, we can't sort of just blame them for the world that we've made. We have to investigate why they were socialized to make it in the first place. And so, I'm always interested in that. I'm interested in those stories and how they play out. But I also am very cognizant of--and I think this is Hume--so forgive me if I'm mixing up my Hagel slash Hume references, but somebody thinks about cultures as along the human development scale. And it would be pretty apt to say that if we look at the United States of America in terms of a culture, we are at that stage between adulthood and childhood where you no longer can forgive it for not knowing or for rushing in headstrong. It's old enough now that the mistakes it's going to make are going to be lifelong. And if it doesn't go back and figure out some of its earlier transgressions and apologize for them or if it doesn't investigate its early traumas, they're going to linger on. And there's these kind of defense mechanisms we have. That sounds a little heady. But if you really look at the development of the human being and look at the development of the United States and look at, again, the traumas, whatever you want to name them as, and what we have investigated and apologized for and, you know, made some restitution to, it plays out that if you don't do that in your human life, those things stick with you and they hinder you. They form defenses that you don't necessarily need anymore. So, I think it's important that a lot of art is reflecting that. A lot of the storytelling that we're doing has a lot of, sort of, introspection about, you know, how we got to the places that we are.
Michael Kantor: Oprah calls David Makes Man unapologetically black or in an interview someone said that.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Oh it was me. I definitely call it unapologetically black.
Michael Kantor: OK, there you go.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Maybe she did, too, but I definitely call it that.
Michael Kantor: I'm just curious. In both that piece and in Choirboy, It's set in a school system where you also once referred to a Talented Tenth. Can you speak to why that moment in education and where Talented Tenth comes from, from W.E.B Dubois' idea of a select few who are exceptional and speak to why that's so important to your work?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, for a long time I subscribed to the notion of the Talented Tenth and then I realized that it was bullshit. This idea that there is, you know, there is a group of talented folk who have a certain type of talents, who will lead the people is sort of just playing right back into the patriarchy that, you know, left us voiceless for so long and left an elite-ness that happens. But because society still adheres to it, regardless of whether they will give W.E.B. his credit for it, we think of their being gifted folk in a community who should take those talents and give them to the main of society, right? We often say that if you are black and gifted and/or talented, you will be, you know, one or two in the room where it happens--at the table. You're allowed to be, you know, you're the exception to the rule. And what that does, often, is, it does drain the community of some of its most talented and creative people because you're taught very early on, even in the notion of being bused to gifted and talented schools, that outside of your community is where your opportunity lies. Away from these people who love you, know you, are growing with you, are in the same position as you are, experienced the same stressors. Away from them is where your opportunity is. And that gets socialized in conscious and unconscious ways and people sort of take hold of that and they leave that community and that community, then, of course, you know, is left lacking some of its talented. So, it's really important to think about that because they're not the only talented people in that community. They're not the only gifted people in that community. But if you're taking, you know, what one thinks of as an elite few out of it, that's less folks to help that community. And similarly, Essex Hemphill talked about, you know, when queer black folks are perceived to have a better life or ability outside of the community may-haps in academia, the talent that they have is then robbed from that community. And he proposed in a lot of ways-- and I read this very early on in life and it stuck with me, but I didn't really understand it until it had happened--that regardless of the uncomfortabilities and the stressors in our community, the community needs our voices, right? It needs our talents. And how do I help find ways to mend the bridge back to the community that is suffering because of the brain talent people drain? Even my neighborhood, Liberty City, if you make a certain amount of money, you move out of Liberty City. You move to another area and you don't necessarily move to another area that is concentrated with black folks. So, we're losing a lot of folks, a lot of economics, a lot of politics that can go on and undergird the community and culture that exists there. So, it's always very important to me to look at that because I, again, care about community so deeply. And I say this to my students all the time. I say look at the place that you came from to come to this august school. One of the oldest playwriting programs in the nation. A lot of our students go on to the big-time platforms for writing, which is, you know, in L.A., Chicago, New York and London. And we have, you know, almost every year, a cohort has at least one person who is making a big name there. But then, of the other cohort, there are people who are making a living but in those places. And I say to my students and I say to myself, remember where you came from and that, when you're here and thinking about going to those platforms, if you're not from there, then, you know, that corner of the world is missing their storyteller. That village, that tribe is missing the person who held the records and understanding and the cultural tapestry of who they are. If that's fine with you, great. But it's something you should think about.
Michael Kantor: But for you, you're trying to hang on to that, personally.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I don't try. I do. I mean, I still, again, currently my address is the same address I've had for 20--you know, for almost 40 years.
Michael Kantor: Right. Home isn't necessarily within academia.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: No. I mean, I practice here and I, again, I do great exchange here and I create as much community as I can. But I'm often, you know, trying to either drag my students back home with me or, you know, or making sure that my home has a platform in which I can engage.
Michael Kantor: This other interesting thing that I heard you talk about elsewhere, which really struck me, is this idea of code switching.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Mm hmm.
Michael Kantor: And I wonder if you could just explain what that means to you and how in both David Makes Man it's happening and how, maybe to this very day, you feel that original person or one part of you and a different part of you, that maybe speaks differently.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, I think all people code switch. In our society, code switching isn't relegated to just race, gender. It's everywhere because there is a kind of codified professionalism that doesn't make any real sense, actually. But I'm almost sure the way you speak at home or to your intimate folks, to your family, is not the same way you would to, you know, to me or to a professional or to someone you just met or to, you know, the president at Yale. You take into consideration where you are and you adjust. When you are, then, socialized to believe that that adjusting will keep you safe, bring you more monetary value, give you access to things you don't necessarily have access to, It can become dangerous. You're incentivized to make more performance than genuine reaction. Not only is that not necessarily a problem, a lot of people have to do it to, like I said, remains safe. The problem can become when you are no longer recognizing-- especially if you learn it too early in life--you no longer recognize when it's necessary. You think every moment is a moment of strategy, of survival, rather than a moment of just living, of being who you want to be because you can and that level of freedom is afforded to those with more privilege and access than a lot of us.
Michael Kantor: That element of the story is central to David Makes Man. Speak to why you think that would appeal to Michael B. Jordan and Oprah Winfrey, who decided to produce it.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well I didn't have to speak to why it would to them. They told me, right? So, I just told them that that's something that I'm interested in. What I just told you about people performing for access and capability and safety. And they said, "oh, I've done that." Or, "oh, I live that way." And like I said, I think you could find, almost across the board, folks of various walks of life who are engaging in that. Again, the capitalism in which we live, there's a kind of drive to, you know, find a way to smaller yourself, smallen yourself, which isn't a word, or embiggen yourself, which is a word, so that, you know, you're perceived in a specific way that is palatable, right? That will allow you more access or less access. And I think, again, when you make young folks who are still forming who they are do that too early, It gets really difficult for them to stop doing it. And we miss out on what could be their genuine reactions, their genuine interests, you know--the true color of who they are. You know, Martha Graham once said, "there is only one you and when you refuse to set the art through the prism of you, we miss out on a beautiful color." And that's absolutely true. And we do it so often in our communities. And I think that plays out more often in my work than most people think. Because in Choirboy Boy, it's not that Ferris isn't talented. He is. But we keep telling him to be talented in a specific way. And so therefore, if we'd keep telling him to be talented in this specific way, don't we miss out on what that talent could be in the world, regardless of whether or not it's, you know, the most popular? You know, the drum isn't always the most popular element in the orchestra and yet we need that draw. We need to hear it. It needs to be there. Something's got to keep that rhythm. You know, the oboe may not be the most popular instrument. And yet, you know, it's E allows us to tune the rest of the-- you know, I mean, you just have to make room for all the instruments and all of the sounds. And I think in David, in Moonlight, in Wig Out, I'm always looking at how we're being asked to hear each other or see each other. In what ways can we make more room?
Michael Kantor: Well, you mentioned Wig Out. I saw Wig Out at the Vineyard Theater directed by Tina Landau and that was about 10 years ago. And apart from that-- maybe more -- apart from Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning. There really hadn't been much about, kind of, drag culture and houses and the way things worked in there. And it feels like between then and now, the world has totally changed.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: That's right.
Michael Kantor: I'm wondering why you think that happened and how it feels to have seen that happen. And it feels as though, I don't know, maybe you're central to that change. I don't know. Maybe not. You tell me.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I don't know. I don't think so. But maybe. Maybe. I think one of the things that the democracy that has happened in terms of information, you know, we're in the information age and we're at a crest. And at some point, we're gonna watch it not be at a crest, which will be a dangerous time. But the ability to see and know things—so, you mentioned Paris is burning, which I think is an exquisite example. Exquisite in that drag houses have been around in our culture since the beginning of, you know, what we think of as the United States. There have been documents of, especially people along the margins of black and brown, finding ways to pageant for each other and then specifically those black and brown bodies who are queer were finding ways to have cotillions and that we've got documents of that in Chicago happening and, you know, the 20s, you know, in New York and in Atlanta. And so, it's been there forever. But the ability to access that understanding hasn't. So, Jennie Livingston made this film. She put it on a platform. Again, she had access--more access-- than a lot of folks in the community had at that time--and people saw it. And then, again, it wasn't like it could be put on a streaming system and sent around the world at that moment. You still had to watch it on film. You still had to, like I did, rent it from the library and then sneak it because your parents were like, well, why hell are you watching this thing, right? So, by the time Wig Out came along, we were right at the moment where things started to open up in another way, where you could live stream from a ball, where you could hear and see, you know, songs made for ball culture specifically and how they started to become popular. And again, there were moments even before Wig Out with Madonna's Vogue, where someone, again, had more access than a lot of folks in the community. And so, people got access via that platform. And so, between then, you got young folks, really young folks, who may not have a lot of access, but have a smartphone. And can film them voguing down on runway, even in the most, you know--.
Michael Kantor: The darkest room.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: The darkest room. Exactly. With clarity, right. That you can see it and then they can date it and document it. And that changed a lot of what's happening. It also meant that science and the conversations around transgender lives needed to shift and change. I mean, my friend Trace Lissette says all the time. You know, ten years ago, we didn't even have the words to describe transitioning and how we transition and what we called folks and in the days of Marsha P. Johnson, we didn't even have the word transgender just yet. We didn't have the language. And so, language, of course, had to follow. Access had to follow folks who were now engaged. We had to find ways to talk to each other about these things. And that's been great and amazing. It also is shining a light on something that has been happening in that community for forever, which is, you know, the violence and danger that especially trans women of color face often by just being themselves, being alive. The good news is that we know more about that now. The bad news is, is that we're still not doing anything about it. But that didn't just start happening. That's been happening. And in numbers that, you know, if we really knew the numbers, because even anecdotally, as a kid, growing up in drag houses and around drag houses, the number of people who died from violence was staggering. I could count off three or four just now. And that's, you know, again, I was only a part of a drag house-- I was never a part of a drag house--I was only dating someone in a drag house for two or three years. So that was always important to me. To make sure that people understood is that I was not trying to represent drag houses. I was literally telling a story of a boy who fell in love with a girl who was a part of a drag house. And that was necessary. But now there are folks in the drag scene, in the drag ball scene, or people who are transgender, people who are drag queens, people who aren't drag queens, drag kings can tell their own story.
Michael Kantor: And then become a celebrity.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Become a celebrity, but also be become an art maker. Which I think a lot of folks don't understand is that folks really are artists and don't want the celebrity of, you know, necessarily hosting a talk show but want to create art. And because we are so engaged in the spectacle of just seeing them now, like we just are so excited that we're seeing them for the first time that we're not getting over the fact that, here's a person who's creating nuanced, intelligent art, and we need to move out of the way so that they can do that.
Michael Kantor: So, you did this show, Ms. Black for President and you performed in the title role. Why was it important for you to get back up on stage in a role like that?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, the role called for a 35-year-old black man who identified as queer, who had lost people they loved to AIDS related complications. And I'm the only person that I know of in the ensemble who fits that bill. So, it called for that body to be in space and represent that story.
Michael Kantor: Did you feel like you learned something about the writing process by performing?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Every time you perform, you learn about the writing process. But again, it goes back to what we talked about earlier. I mean, my earliest understanding of how to write a story was to do it and then write it down.
Michael Kantor: So last question, we could talk all day, but what kind of stories do you want to see more of?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: That's a good question. I want to see more stories from transgender artists. I want to see more stories from black artists on the continent. I want to see more stories from indigenous artists from around the world. Yeah.
Michael Kantor: And because, we do have one more minute, Royal Shakespeare Company, what did you do with them and what did you get out of that?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I was their international writer in residence, and so I spent a lot of time reading and watching Shakespeare and stealing some of his tools to put into my own work. But I also realized, I mean, I think the most important thing I realized is that, you know, again, stories--plays particularly-- are meant to be seen. And it was one of the one of the revelations of my time there, which is that, you know, you could read these stories and like them or you could read them aloud with people and then really like them. Or you can go see them and love them. And I thought, this is what that means. It means that our stories, the stories that we create, no matter how old they are, no matter how, you know, royally supported they are, they need to be seen by everybody.
Michael Kantor: Well, Tarell Alvin McCraney, thank you so much. It's been a joy to watch your work develop over the years. And last question, I guess, is what's next? You have something in the works that you can tell us about or you're busy with your cohort of other writers?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Thank you for having me. I think the thing that I'm walking away from this conversation thinking about is not necessarily what my work is, but, you know, whom can I make more space for? How can I put the practice of the question that I put in my work in reality or in tangible ways? Like who can I support? Whom can I make room for or make more room for? It's an important question I put in my work, but it is important that I need to put work into it.