Catching Up With Tarell Alvin McCraney
By Jerry Portwood
After watching the young men in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, one might imagine that the young African-American playwright also attended an all-boys boarding school, or at least one of the prestigious historically all-male black colleges, such as Morehouse, but the quiet playwright is quick to laugh off such a suggestion, explaining that he grew up in diverse schooling environments for the most part, and then later attended Yale for graduate school.
"I didn't go to a boarding school or an all-male anything. I kinda wish I had. I didn't go to an all-black college," he says. "It doesn't matter, every play, people always think it is autobiographical. That's fine, I guess."
The play—which focuses on a flamboyant student named Pharus (played by the talented Jeremy Pope) and the hothouse environment of a boarding school and the power of music—has its final Off-Broadway performance this Sunday, August 4, but is surely to be peformed in regional theaters for years to come (McCraney mentioned a production planned for Atlanta's Alliance Theatre that's already in the works). We caught up with McCraney by phone at an airport as he waited for his next flight, since he's been traveling to various theaters producing his works. It was just a few days after the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case was announced, and we asked him about his plays that offer commentary on the black experience in America, how the play was received previously in London, and what he has in the works.
Your plays offer unusual insight, as well as criticism, of the black male experience. With Choir Boy, are you saying that an all-black male school experience is a good or bad thing?
The question on everybody's lips, what has become of the black male experience in America. Especially in Chicago [where I just was], they are dying every other day by the tens. There's the Trayvon Martin case, and you begin to wonder: If we can have a black male in the White House, what has happened to the urban black male experience today? Over the past three or four years, most of my work is trying to question that, what that is.
The ideal would be to have a school that specifically caters to that, to make men for tomorrow. A conservatory where we have the best of the best and prepare them to be the leaders of our community for the next 20 or 40 years to come. What would that mean? Putting black men together in that space and trying to find themselves and that individual voice and give them, what's the word... to put them in touch with what we historically want them to express for us, it's an extraordinary feat. Not only do you have to be yourself, to figure out what you want, but you have to look out for the benefit of the community and how you are going to serve them.
So, I hope this isn't offensive, but it made me think of my black friends who say they are bourgie black gays. And Pharus seems to be the epitome of that sort of guy, and I don't think I've ever seen it so clearly written or acted as in Choir Boy.
Pharus is fascinating because he's able to do relate to and be himself. But let's go about this in a different route. Here in lies how Pharus is autobiographical, not specifically to me, but the black gay male experience. Every story in the play that catches you off guard is probably true.
If there was an incident, that probably never happened, probably it did. There's a book out now edited by Keith Boykin called, For Colored Boys Who've Considered Suicide.
When we submitted pieces, a group of friends of mine got together to talk about it, and we realized that there are some horrifying stories that we have to tell about diminishing femininity and amplifying masculinity; changing who we are once we enter into our own neighborhoods and communities depending on what socio-economic status we come from.
I come from a very poor background, so there was no cachet to any of the things I was learning or codifying as a gay man at school. So when I got home, I figured out a specific way to go unnoticed. What I recognized is that my friends did the same thing, depending on the institution, that "double consciousness" existed, that trying to make sure you spoke a certain way, walked a certain way, dressed a certain way when you were in a certain area. So then it becomes a triple consciousness: you act a certain way in the black community, but then transfer that, because you can't act like that at school you can't speak like that at school in order to excel in the education process, which is predominately Western.
Then there's your gay self: What can you say in front of your straight friends and what do you keep to yourself? What is acceptable to talk about? You have all these identities converging on one person. What Pharus has over me, is that he has the ability to sort of manage them at a very young age, whereas I didn't. It took me forever to figure it out.
I was quiet forever because it made it more difficult to try to be in all of these worlds at once. Even now, I still find it hard to open up. I try to figure out what situation I am in and what language do I use? What codes and signifiers do I use? What you see in Pharus is a person who has the ability to manage all of them and somehow remain true to himself. What ultimately gets him in trouble is that he pushes the boundaries too far. I'm not the first person to write about that; Shakespeare wrote about that all the time. But in this instance, it's really specific and current.
I witnessed a friend who went to an all-black school and he told me about boys who were effeminate getting beat up, and the administration not doing much about it. They antagonized the other boys. I've heard stories about schools telling boys that they can't dress the way they want or walk the way they want. These are still things that exist even in 2013, post-DOMA. I just think it's important that we remember that.
You mentioned to me at one point that this cast is unique and comes from different backgrounds. Can you explain what they taught you about your play in the rehearsal and workshop process?
First of all, the rehearsal process was blitzkrieg short, so there wasn't a lot of time to workshop, but I did a lot of on-the-ground, in-the-moment work while I was in the room with the actors. But these are young men who are coming into their own. Regardless of sexuality and background, even ethnic identity, they are being asked to say yes or no to categories that society would like to put them in. They deal with them in a very real and substantive way. They also witness the violence that Pharus goes through themselves.
What's really important is that the director Trip Cullman, who identifies as a gay man, he identifies really strongly with the sort of bullying that comes along with being identified when you didn't want that. When you're outed in a hothouse environment like at an all-boys school. Then you have to deal with the repercussions of what people think you are, even if you haven't ascribed it to yourself. When you can't blend in—especially a 13-, 14-, or 15-year-old boy.
I read in Isherwood's Times review of the play that he wondered if 'choir boy' meant 'queer boy,' and I wanted to know if that was something you intended?
I rarely read reviews, certainly didn't read that one. As long as they didn't say anything bad about the boys, I'm good. Choir Boy is literally about that, a choir boy. When someone calls you a choir boy in the black community, it is often what we think of as "fairies"—wildly gregarious and eccentric and not talked about. We know they are extraoridinally musically talented and do great things with music, but as far as what their life is and their human elements, we disregard them in a way. Choir boy almost means, like, eunuch in a way. These are the choir leaders, we see their effeminite ways and hair and dress. Although there's a spiritual guise of the choir master, we whisper about them, don't talk about them directly; it's a weird dichotomy that exists below the surface in the black community. That's where the title comes from. I'm trying to figure out how it could be queer boy, but I don't think I stumbled upon it.
With the power and complexity and multiple plots of this story, you could have a TV show or movie. Has anyone told you or suggested that yet?
People keep saying, "It has great reviews." I think especially people in the position of doing stuff with it, they thought to themselves, We've tread this territory before, but I don't agree. We've never seen a portrait of black men in this way at all. I can't recall any play or movie or TV show that has dealt with this in this way—the content or the form. But people say, "Well, you know, it's what happens during school." I hope it's not what happens during school. I hope that everyone's experiences aren't like this. You write plays about extraordinary circumstances. So no, no one has spoken to me about it [doing a TV show] directly. I'm sure smarter people than me are on the case.
I wondered what you thought about Obama's graduation speech at Morehouse, where he mentioned boyfriends to the all-male school, and the reaction it received.
There was nothing to think; it was expected. Obama's shifted his ideas about gay marriage and the sort of fallout has not been that inclusive from the black clergy. And now we're waiting for people to catch up. The funny thing is, it's as if the reason this is catching so many people off guard because it's new to them. It's because they've spent so much time not speaking about it.
In my grandparents' day, they knew gay existed and knew people "who were that way." Now having to speak about it is a little jarring for a number of people. that reaction that people had was normative. If they didn't have a reaction, if they'd clapped and applauded, I would have been highly surprised and thought something was afoot, because that's not the norm.
The powerful monologue that Pharus gives about black spirituals which questions their implicit coded messages was surprising. Was that something you had studied or discussed at length in your own life?
The idea that negro spirituals contain coded messages is an old one, something I was taught and told all my life. I recognized that in order for us to look at young people and what they can bring to the table is their individual quality to look at a situation, and one of the things that happens is, certain pillars of thought in the black community, they will hold on to ideology. And if anyone challenges that, it's a major interruption to life, rather than finding ways to allow the dialogue. But we can find larger truths when we debate.
We don't incentivize that kind of thinking. But how we progress is to allow people to think, but it doesn't go along with the "good negro" policy, what we base our foundation on.
For example, I had a couple of friends who were adamant that they wanted to go back to africa and find out where their ancestry lay. I wasn't interested in it. They noticed I wasn't and said to me, "Tarell, don't you want to find out who they were?" I thought, More than likely they were slaves. I identify with that, and I'm proud of it, that they survived and that I'm here. The notion of that, it was enough for me. It made me feel more American than anything, that meant that my bloodlines were within the bedrock of what America is.
The brick and mortar that builds up what we think is Democracy is the uprising the protests the revolutions, the very sadly and scarily, the money market that we evolved to is built on my bloodline. That makes me more intrinsically American that finding my African roots. What I do know of my bloodline is powerful, and I can build my life and teach my children. I lost a good many friends because of that. I think it's great and wonderful that you want to find your bloodline in nigerian quarter of the world; there's nothing wrong with that. But my people are from Milledgeville, Ga., and that's where they start, and that makes me fifth-generation American.
I'm black American and African American, but it makes me feel like I can be proud of where they were from and where they're going.
What was the difference having this play produced in London as opposed to in New York?
In the UK they are well-versed in the world of boarding school. What they understood immediately and easily, some people in America did not. What they got instantly—the hothouse environment that a boarding school can be—they didn't have to be told. It has angles that allow people to access it from different ways.
I also think that the black experience in London is, again, their connection and roots is different. it's not 400 or 500 years removed. They identify distinctly as African and Caribbean and the various countries that lie within that range. So what I experienced watching them watch the play was not a fetishizing but an investigation of, "How is the Great Experiment working?" They see it as an American play. Whereas Americans see it as a black or African-American play; they don't see it as part of the American tapestry. It's one of the harder parts of engaging in the gay community. Normally there's a black, gay qualifier. Once the black part is added, then there's a way the conversation is sidelined.
It's then not thought of as an American conversation about alienation, it becomes a specific thing to be spoken of. I find it more marginalizing: Yes, it's a gay play. But it's a black gay play, so it doesn't follow suit with a Normal Heart, for example. There's a different category it falls into.
To me, they're all about an American experience. We all could only exist under the umbrella of America anyway. Under these auspices. The way in which we're struggling and fighting and all part of the Great Experiment. I think it's important that we keep going back to that, that we're all in this together.