He may be living in London, but Tarell Alvin McCraney is the "it man" of American playwrights. Just 30, the Miami native has been honored and feted in Europe and in the United States, including being named international playwright-in-residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he is completing a commission called "American Trade." That play, about an escort working in London, premieres June 2.
The body of work that established McCraney as a hot playwright was "The Brother/Sister Plays," a trilogy that has drawn breathless notices. New York Times critic Ben Brantley hailed the playwright's "new, authentically original vision. It's what people must have felt during productions of the early works of Eugene O'Neill in the 1920s or of Sam Shepard in the 1960s."
McCraney's vision and voice get their first local airing starting Friday when one of those plays, "In the Red and Brown Water," makes its regional premiere at the Guthrie Theater, staged by Obie-winning director Marion McClinton.
"This is probably my favorite play of the trilogy," McCraney said recently by phone from London. "It came from a story about [the West African gods] Oya and Shango, which I grew up on in Miami. It's important to me because it's about a young woman's transition in a world that doesn't have the best intention for her."
The project has attracted an all-star cast that includes Ivey Award-winners Greta Oglesby, James A. Williams, Sonja Parks and Christiana Clark, who depicts the lead character. It centers on Oya (Clark), a track star living in the projects of San Pere in the Louisiana bayou who gives up a scholarship in order to care for her dying mother (Parks). Actors Ansa Akyea, Gavin Lawrence, Aimee K. Bryant, John Catron, Celeste Jones and Nathan Barlow flesh out a cast that represents Oya's competing love interests, advisers and sharp-tongued competitors in their hard-pressed community.
The play is partly inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca's tragic work "Yerma," and by August Wilson, who opened doors for McCraney. "I got that twang in my voice from them," he said. "I use their shards to create this new piece of pottery."
"Tarell's language is like Shakespeare meets Lorca meets spoken word and hip-hop, but it's not at all affected," said Frances Wilkinson of Minneapolis-based Mount Curve Company, which co-produced this staging with Pillsbury House Theatre. She saw the play in New York and Chicago and was eager to share it with Twin Cities audiences. "He's exciting and so original."
McCraney said he wrote "Red and Brown Water" at a time of grief compounded by jet lag.
"My mother had just passed away and I had flown to Oxford to study Shakespeare," he said. "I was in that dreamy space when the play just started fumbling out. It came to life, Minerva-like, fully formed out of my head without me thinking about it. It's hard to replicate that trance-like state, that place where the work is more felt than intellectualized."
That he is a playwright at all is surprising. While he dreamed of being an actor and a ballet dancer, among other things, his Miami neighborhood was a tough place to grow up.
Besides, his parents had other ideas for him. "My dad was sort of lobbying for me to do something practical, like become a preacher," he said, laughing.
McCraney recognized his gift at 13, when he signed up with a drug-prevention outreach program. He and fellow teens wrote playlets and performed on street corners and in halfway houses. McCraney knew what he was talking about, having seen his mother suffer the ravages of crack-cocaine addiction and AIDS.
He learned important lessons in that program, which he participated in until age 21. "Theater is about engagement," he said. "It isn't a one-way conversation with dim lights and cushy seats."
To the Ivy League
At Yale, he met August Wilson. McCraney was tapped to be the famous playwright's assistant for the 2005 world premiere of "Radio Golf," the final work in Wilson's 10-play epic cycle.
"Let's be real -- August is a person you have to learn over many years, and he didn't need an assistant," he said. "Everyone around him was bending to do his bidding. But seeing August up close, I got a sense that it is a responsibility to be generous. I've been given a lot of things and now I'm going to take those gifts and keep bestowing them on others. The root of art is compassion."
Director McClinton, who worked with Wilson during his later period, has championed McCraney for years. "He's the real deal," said McClinton. "Like August, he has a deep love of people. The humanity comes through in how these people, living in the projects, interact with each other, care for each other. Marry all of that with Tarell's craft and the brilliance, and you've got a playwright to sing about."