Born and raised in Liberty City, Tarrell Alvin McCraney is the executive producer of Moonlight, the film inspired by his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. He is back in Miami just a few days after the film has won a Golden Globe award for Best Picture. There is Oscar buzz all around McCraney, adding to the considerable mantle of achievement that already drapes his young shoulders. * Generally considered a significant voice in contemporary theater, he is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship or “Genius Grant” and has worked with a number of major theater companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Public Theater in New York and Steppenwolf Theatre. This year, he begins his tenure at the Yale School of Drama as Chair of the Playwriting program.
A graduate of Miami Dade College’s New World School of the Arts (NWSA), McCraney was in town to participate in the school’s 30-year anniversary by directing an evening of play readings of some of his works. The performance was a fundraiser for a grant that helps students pay for the costs associated with auditioning. The cast was comprised of NWSA students, a couple of actors he has worked with professionally in past productions and one faculty member. We caught up with McCraney just before a rehearsal which was also functioning as a Master Class for NWSA students.
Gabriel Riera: Where do you get the audacity to bring these characters forward and tell these stories?
Tarrell Alvin McCraney: The necessity to talk about the world I come from is mitigated mostly by the eradication or annihilation of those images in the rest of the world. If I’m always seeking myself in someone else’s life or story, I begin to diminish what I actually have and come from. It therefore becomes less profitable for the rest of the world. The rest of the world feels like the world you come from is negligible, it’s without merit. As you watch the systemic destruction of where you come from, you realize that the stories that come out of there are equally important to everywhere else.
“I could wait around for someone to ask, but you and I both know that no one is sitting around waiting for me to tell stories about poor people.”
GR: Some writers, it seems, have to give themselves permission to express what they need to express. But you’re saying it’s a necessity. It has to be told, it must be told.
TAM: Well, we know in every culture and social location in the world that it is a necessity that those stories be told in order for other people and the people inside to recognize where they come from. That’s why we tell “origin” stories—that’s why every year on December 25th, we tell “the greatest story ever told.”
We live in America, thank God! So far, we still have the freedom to express ourselves in this way. We may not much longer but, for now, we do. We do…as of yesterday… So, while that still belongs to us and we’re allowed to do that, we must use all aspects of ourselves to tell those stories.
The permission is there and the freedom to do it. The need comes from the disappearance of who you are and where you come from. I could wait around for someone to ask, but you and I both know that no one is sitting around waiting for me to tell stories about poor people. Those are hard stories—who wants to hear those stories? Except that when you do tell them, then everybody wants to shout “I’ve seen a world I’ve never seen before!” But of course you’ve seen it. Even coming to work at Government Center or downtown, you walk past abject poverty every day. So why not give the lives of those people the intimacy that you have? Why not share those with you? Because then you start to recognize that you and them are not so far apart…
“I always believed I was an artist. Going to New World here at Miami Dade made that possible.”
GR: Did you always believe that you were a writer or was this a process of becoming?
TAM: I always believed I was an artist. Going to New World here at Miami Dade made that possible. But I’ve always believed I was an artist. I always understood that I was an artist.
GR: How important do you feel it is for artists to get that support and validation early on in life?
TAM: I think early on, artists need practice. That’s the most important thing that artists can be given—the place and the room to practice. And that’s certainly what New World did for me but also other institutions like the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center and the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet—they gave me a place to practice.
GR: It sounds like you’re describing coming to terms with or experiencing failure and success on a daily basis.
TAM: Well, all we’re doing is practicing, right? All we do in art is put a frame around life and life is ever moving and imperfect. So, that’s all we’re doing, practicing. If art were ever perfect, it would cease to exist. In that moment, it is no longer a practice, it’s no longer art, it’s something else. But art is always something that is in a toggle between “almost” and “not quite.” And that’s the beauty of it, we can almost feel something or almost see something as it actually is and walk away and extrapolate more.
I enjoy the practice. I enjoy working with young people. I enjoy working with other artists.
*Since this story was written, Moonlight has been nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.