Since playwright and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney entered mainstream consciousness with “Moonlight,” the 2016 Oscar-winning film based on his play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” he’s been alternately described as a “genius” and “prodigy.” But these are not terms that McCraney is entirely comfortable with. “It’s kind of isolating,” he said. “For me, it’s more about community, because I really don’t wish to be in what you call rare air.”
With his script for Netflix’s NBA drama “High Flying Bird” drawing high praise, his Broadway production “Choir Boy” finishing up its run, and the upcoming OWN television series “David Makes Man” around the corner, McCraney has been developing a homegrown approach to inclusivity. “The mission is not for me to be in every single space, but rather for us to be in every single space,” he said. “I wish to live, work and die in, and for my community, knowing that I was of service to my people. That is at the root of my art-making.”
McCraney’s career has unfolded on a singular trajectory: He’s a young, openly gay black man from working-class Liberty City, navigating what have historically been mostly white, heterosexual spaces. His resume includes International Playwright in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, Chair of Playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, and now an Oscar.
However, he still sees himself as something of an industry outsider.
“I navigate with a sense of knowing that I’m being ‘allowed’ entry into these spaces, by the gatekeepers,” he said. “They can now say, ‘this space is being occupied by Tarell McCraney’, and there isn’t any room for any more like him. And that’s just not what I want my experience to be, because it’s not a notion that affords me the kind of nurturing and healing I need as a queer, black, male artist, and I long for moments when I’m part of a community.”
These days, McCraney takes the long view on his role in the industry. “There are three productions that deal with the black experience coming to Broadway, out of 40 venues, and they’re not all on at the same time,” he said. “I don’t want to be the only voice in this platform, talking about ‘the black experience.’ I want to be in conversation with others because, not only do our experiences vary, but, as the artist, you no longer have the freedom to be who you most intimately are, which is how you got there in the first place.”
For his co-writing credit on “Moonlight,” he won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay — which he shared with director Barry Jenkins — and has since adjusted to working as a film and TV writer.
McCraney welcomed the opportunity to script the jargon-dense “High Flying Bird,” which was brought to him by longtime friend André Holland (who produced and stars). The project presented a new kind of challenge for McCraney, who’s known as a poetic, minimalist dramatist, and whose works tend to be inspired by his own life. “As an outsider to the world that the film is set in, I was really interested in how it all works,” he said. “I would even say that many fans of the sport would shudder, as I did, to find out the politics of the business involved when it comes to the players.”
And even though the story for “High Flying Bird” involved an unfamiliar world, he found some thematic links to his experiences navigating the entertainment industry. “Having to deal with industry gatekeepers can be very intimidating,” McCraney said, recalling his experience with a writers guild strike just before production began on one of his plays, and comparing that experience to the NBA lockout that provides the backdrop of the film. “It’s not unlike André’s character, who we watch as an agent trying to engage new forums for his client, and the pushback he faces,” McCraney said. “I certainly have felt that.”
“High Flying Bird” marks a turning point for McCraney as he settles into the role of writer for hire. But “David Makes a Man” ensures that he hasn’t lost touch with his abilities as a personal storyteller.
The OWN series, which premieres on the network this summer, is inspired by the writer’s impoverished youth in Florida. The milieu naturally calls to mind “Moonlight,” and even borrows some of the film’s stylistic touchstones, by depicting the working class “black struggle” evocative colors and a melancholic score that sets the lyrical tone.
The series was originally set up at HBO, but once the network’s parent company, Time Warner, was acquired by AT&T, McCraney had to find a new home for it. Along with his Page Fright Productions team, they drew the interest of actor Michael B. Jordan, who came on board as executive producer, before they shopped it at OWN.
While he’s the sole creative force behind his first television project, McCraney said the pressure was alleviated by the people supporting the effort. “I’ve got Michael B. Jordan and Oprah producing,” he said. “My showrunner, Dee Harris-Lawrence, is a black woman; then there are our writers and cast members, so it’s a village. And I know my experience of being a gifted student or having to be used to schools that are far outside your neighborhood, and the psychological weight of all that, is not just my experience alone. So I think the story will resonate with others.”
And although writing will be his primary focus, he does plan to return to stage acting, including an upcoming starring role in a new Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of the writer’s play, “Ms. Blakk for President.” The play was by the true story of Joan Jett Blakk, America’s first drag queen presidential candidate, who announced her first presidential run on the floor of the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Blakk ran for president again in 1996, and later for mayor of San Francisco. The show opens in May.
Meanwhile, with his first Broadway production, “Choir Boy,” on the tail-end of its run, the busy McCraney is also turning his attention to another one of several spaces he occupies — overseeing new applicants to the Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program, where he is Chair.
Despite his many roles, however, McCraney said he had no plans to jump into the director’s chair. “Instead of me occupying another space, how about we give opportunities to all these amazing black women directors standing on the sidelines?” he said. “I can write down what I see in my head, better than I can get a camera to do it.”
“High Flying Bird” is now streaming on Netflix and screening in select theaters.