berkeleyrep0409 Tarell McCraney, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

Tarell Alvin McCraney 

Tarell Alvin McCraney sits at one of his favorite haunts in New Haven, Soul de Cuba Cafe on Crown Street. The space’s imagery of the Yoruba people of West Africa reminds him of his youth in Miami when a Santerian priest told him he was “touched and blessed” and that “the gods are talking to you.”

Now 38, the writer looks not much different from my first interview with him 11 years ago at the same spot. Tall, lean and graceful with a balance of prep and hip, McCraney is engaging and certainly upbeat, but still addresses me with “Mister” before my name. (“Sorry, I’m from the South,” he says to explain his formality.)

When he was in his final year in the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama, McCraney’s writing created a buzz. He was seen as having a fresh, poetic voice and a different approach to theater that would first manifest itself in The Brothers Size, part of his Brother/Sister Plays trilogy. When he graduated in 2007, he completed his theatrical triptych and followed that with off-Broadway plays such as Wig Out!, Choir Boy and Head of Passes, the latter starring Phylicia Rashad.

But the spotlight blazed brightest when a semi-autobiographical work he had submitted to get into Yale became the basis of a screenplay for 2016’s Moonlight,which ultimately earned him — and the film — Oscars the following year. And that spotlight isn’t going anywhere, as McCraney makes his Broadway debut this month with Choir Boy, returns to the stage as an actor, and has a collaboration with Oprah hitting the small screen later this year.

Contrary to popular belief, McCraney says, Moonlight was not written as a play, but a screenplay when he crafted it in 2003 after graduating from DePaul University in Chicago and the year before he went to Yale. “The writing of it after my mother died [from complications of AIDS and dementia] was me trying to figure out basically my life,” he says. “I never imagined it as a theater piece. I was trying to do something else. It kept coming to me in visuals, of growing up in Miami.

“I may have submitted it once or twice to a screenwriting workshop but that was pretty much it. Mostly it just sat around for a long time. I had given it to a couple of friends in Miami and they gave it to [the film’s director, Barry Jenkins] and we started a slow conversation around 2013 that led to him creating a screenplay that would become Moonlight.

His next career move took many by surprise when he accepted the position of chair of the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama, where he was a student just 10 years earlier.

But the teaching role is hardly the only gig for the multitasking talent. In 2017 he wrote a screenplay for Steven Soderbergh, High Flying Bird, a dark comedy about basketball players during a lock-out, which is set for release in 2019. He also worked with Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne in Paris during the development of The Prisoner, which had its U.S. premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in November before moving to New York.

He makes his Broadway bow as a playwright when Choir Boyis revived on Jan. 8. A new play, Ms. Blakk For President, co-written with director Tina Landau — “inspired by the true story of America’s first black drag queen presidential candidate and set in 1992 with the AIDS crisis at its height” — will premiere late in the spring at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where he is an ensemble member. With that work, McCraney will return to the stage as an actor after many years behind the scenes.

“Acting takes so much time and you just have to be dedicated to it,” says McCraney, who, after years of living out of a suitcase, is now based in his native Miami. “I never stopped being interested in acting. I just didn’t have the time. But I come from a community of doing many things at once. Life is hectic but fine.”

If the other projects were not keeping him busy enough, the MacArthur “genius” grant recipient also scripted and is producing a new dramatic series, David Makes Man, which is being produced on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN television network. The new series, with Creed star Michael B. Jordan as an executive producer, began with an unexpected telephone call from Winfrey asking the writer to develop a series for her network.

“Any meeting with Oprah is like the first meeting with Oprah,” he says. “There’s always something surprising in what she is interested in, what she’s after, what she’s doing in the world. You always walk away kind of stunned.”

He remembers his first meeting when he pitched her a number of ideas.

“It was nerve-racking because we didn’t expect her to be there. She just sort of showed up as I presented multiple pitches. [One pitch], she really locked into it and she was actually pretty speechless after, which I hear is not common. She was pretty taken in. I was just surprised that people — including her — were so understanding about what I wanted to talk about, which is a dramatic moment in a young black person’s life and how they had to carry that into adulthood without any real help.”

David Makes Man, like Moonlight, is set in the Miami projects and is a coming-of-age story centering on a young African-American boy. David is described as a 14-year-old prodigy from the projects “who is haunted by the death of his closest friend and relied on by his hardworking mother to find a way out of poverty. He must choose between the streets that raised him or the higher education that may offer him a way out as his now-sober, former-drug-user mother worries that social services might take her sons away.”

The title character of the lyrical drama is played by Akili McDowell, and Alana Arenas plays Gloria, David’s young, single mother who wants a better life for her children. Also starring is Rashad.

David Makes Man is expected to launch later this year.

This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Send us your feedback on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag, or email editor@connecticutmag.com.

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.