Tarell Alvin McCraney Isn't Done Telling Black, Queer Stories

Courtesy of OWN & Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Rod Millington

On a February night in 2017, Tarell Alvin McCraney took to the Dolby Theatre stage. The lapel on his eggshell-colored tuxedo was adorned with a red ribbon — a nod to his mother, who died from AIDS-related complications. When he retrieved the golden statue from the hands of Amy Adams, with director and co-writer Barry Jenkins by his side, he officially accepted the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. This moment would be the crowning glory of an awards season that bestowed praise and honors on Moonlight, the film that was inspired by McCraney’s life.

“This goes out to all those Black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming who don’t see themselves,” the MacArthur Fellow said from the stage, obviously flustered and overwhelmed. “We’re trying to show you you and us.”

Not even two years later, McCraney is still honoring the experiences of Black and brown people in his work. In February, Netflix released the Steven Soderbergh basketball film High Flying Bird, written by McCraney and starring André Holland and Melvin Gregg. Weeks later, McCraney made his Broadway debut with the stirring Choir Boy, a coming-of-age musical drama about a queer student in a Black, all-boys prep school (which recieved four Tony nominations Tuesday). And this fall, David Makes Man, a show he’s created, written, and executive produced (with Michael B. Jordan), premieres on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

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The hour-long “lyrical drama” follows a 14-year-old prodigy named David from the projects (Akili McDowell) who is haunted by the death of his closest friend. Bussed out of his community to a mostly white school, David is forced to don two personas: one to navigate the streets that raised him, and another to succeed in the education system that may offer him a way out. Set in South Florida and also starring Alana Arenas, Isaiah Johnson, Travis Coles, and icon Phylicia Rashad (who’s twice played the lead in McCraney’s play Head of Passes), the series is McCraney’s television debut.

Operating in a similar world to Moonlight, David Makes Man draws on McCraney’s experience growing up Black, poor, and queer with a struggling, single mother in a world that offers little support. Whereas Moonlight beautifully captured three slices of a character’s life, his television show interrogates the traumas sustained in one’s fight for survival, including the difficult lessons learned along the way. McCraney used the setting of
historically Black colleges and universities to explain.

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“The first time I went to Morehouse, it [was] interesting being in a place that is totally Black and for the benefit of your intellectual rigor, because [Black people are] taught pretty early that those places don’t exist,” he says of the men's HBCU. “And if they do, they aren’t up to par, and being the only [smart one in your community] makes you an outlier. But all of that has a lot of anti-Black and anti-community sentiment to it because you’ll relearn when you look back that you’ve been taught not to love where you’re from, and not to engage with the problems of your community.”

McCraney’s continuing ability to “reach into his own life, his own pain, and reflect that on the page, and then put that out into the world” is what elevates his art, says Dee Harris-Lawrence, the project’s showrunner. “Ultimately, being able to share that will help others heal, or at least see that they are not alone.”

This June, he’ll bring even more of himself to his work by hitting the stage of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre as the lead in Ms. Blakk For President, a musical about the factual journey of Terence Smith who, as drag queen Ms. Joan Jett Blakk, ran for president of the United States in 1992. McCraney co-wrote the production with the show’s director Tina Landau, a longtime collaborator who brought the idea to him. “I had no idea about this history and so, through sheer embarrassment, I thought I needed to engage this fully and wholeheartedly,” he says about taking on the role himself, “because there will be another me in another 10 years who doesn’t know anything about this if I don’t.”

Landau, who first met McCraney when she cast him in a show in the early 2000s — before he went off to Yale’s playwriting program (of which he is now chair) — says that after staging 12 productions with him, the one thing she appreciates most is that, contrary to popular belief, he isn’t exclusively a writer.

“I think of him as an artist because his interests are so far-reaching and whenever he makes something, whether it’s in film or in theater, on the page or in his own body, he is so aware of the multidisciplinary nature of the tools,” she says. “He is foremost a storyteller, somewhat in the ancient tradition of storytelling.”

McCraney sees his current work as an invitation to “a journey of finding solutions, but also discovering more nuances of our consciousness.” But through it all, he’s learned a powerful lesson about what fuels his award-winning creativity.

“The way art functions in Black, queer communities is as community. It’s for community,” he says. “It’s where we discuss, where we debate, where we challenge ideas…whether that has been in church or at the ball. We get our politic out in art.”

This article appears in Out's May issue featuring artist Zanele Muholi and model Ruth Bell as cover stars. The issue is guest edited by Kimberly Drew. To read more, grab your own copy of the issue on Kindle, Nook, Zinio or (newly) Apple News+ today. Preview more of the issue here and click here to subscribe.

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