I feel like we should start a new blog category, just for feature stories on Tarell Alvin McCraney. Here’s an article from the UK’s “The Evening Standard” about Tarell and Wig Out, which is playing at the Royal Court in London. I like this article because it has a different focus than some of the other Tarell articles, of which there are many… Click here, or read below.
The sexiest writer in town
By Nicholas de Jongh
When Tarell Alvin McCraney, the sensational writer voted Most Promising Playwright at today’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards, was a young schoolboy in Florida he quite often used to be beaten up. He got used to it. The scene was the poor, black streets of Miami in the early Nineties. He would be attacked and verbally abused on the streets and at school.
Once, when going to dance class - it remains his governing passion - he wore shorts and a T-shirt instead of formal dance clothes because his mother was too poor to buy them. He recalls how he was then set upon by a group of black boys on the street. It is important to report that they were African-Americans, because the incident says something particular about the working-class black culture in which he grew up.
“They were calling me punk, which means arsehole, which means gay,” he says, as he sits in the Royal Court café where previews of his play Wig Out!, about pre-operative male-to-female drag queens, transvestites and the odd straight boy, are already causing those extraordinary flurries of excitement and rumour that the shock of the new or different often causes.
“They broke a tooth and I was left with a swollen jaw,” he says. But why, I wondered, did they go for him? What had he done? What offence had he caused? “They didn’t need much reason to beat you up,” says the 28-year-old McCraney, who has grown up to be tall and handsome. He moves like a dancer, loose-limbed and flowing, elegant in a cool, understated way. His voice never rises above medium-quiet.
“They would call me white boy, which meant I was too effeminate, and they had this game called knock-down/stay down. One by one they would hit you until you fell. They kept calling me faggot, punk, sissy, though I didn’t even know what gay was.”
He stood there and took the blows until one of the boys who had already tried to bring him down whispered that it would be better to fall, because once he had they would stop tormenting him.
Today in London you would at most only stop to give him an admiring glance. He fits naturally into the capital’s scenery. Within the space of a year he has become accepted here as the hottest young American playwright of the time. That he will have had three fine plays, The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water and Wig Out! all performed at major London theatres in less than a year is a tribute to the rare excitement that his dramas inspire. West African mythology, Yoruba demons, voodoo and hip hop give his plays a strange dynamic. His characters live in hard-pressed, suffering, impoverished circumstances.
It all began last year when David Lan, the Young Vic’s artistic director, spotted the unusual quality of his play The Brothers Size and brought it to his theatre in Waterloo. It was an instant hit with critics and public alike.
The play deals with two brothers, one respectable, the other a wanderer just out of prison, whose gay friend he met inside sabotages his attempts to go straight in more ways than one. What makes The Brothers Size unique is the way in which McCraney shapes his narrative, with the characters speaking the stage directions and a strange, poetic dynamic that draws on West African myths and hip hop rhyme and rhythms.
The play, part of McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy, was so successful that it was brought back for a second run this year, to accompany the London premiere of In the Red and Brown Water, an even stranger, more poetic piece.
Again it depends upon African mythology. At the centre of it is a young woman in a black community in rural Louisiana. She longs to be an athlete but has to nurse her dying mother.
The third play in the trilogy, Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, has yet to be seen in London. A strange sense of impending doom hangs over the plays and you sense the impact of McCraney’s own, grim family life.
His early years were a series of narrow escapes from disaster or even, he reckons, death. He was born and brought up in an impoverished family, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
His mother, who had given birth to him before she was 18, endured a series of abusive relationships with men before becoming a crack addict, a condition that led to her contracting HIV when McCraney was 14. “She stopped being the person I knew when I was 18,” he says of her long decline and fall. By the time he had left college she was dead.
“I had got into a programme for the children of drug addicts,” McCraney says. “Without that I don’t think I would be alive.”
Besides the traumatic times with his mother, McCraney had a difficult relationship with his father. Neither parent appears to have accepted happily that their son was gay. By tradition, African-Americans, with their roots in evangelical Christianity, abhor homosexuality even more than their white counterparts. “They did not tolerate it. My dad was not a fan.” He would say to Tarell: “You can’t be gay. It’s wrong to be with another man”.
Even his mother, whom he thinks understood him better, was fiercely critical. “She’d say being with a man would bring bad effects for the rest of my life.”
McCraney’s life seems not to have suffered at all, however. Once he won entrance to a performing arts school in Miami, fired by the idea of being an actor and later a dancer, the art form he thinks better than any other, the young man began to flourish.
He joined the theatre group Village Improv and was later accepted on Yale’s postgraduate playwriting course. After that, Peter Brook chose him to act in his production of Le Costume and he worked as an assistant to American playwright August Wilson.
The Royal Court’s production of Wig Out! marks the next stage in this remarkable writer’s career. New York Times critic Ben Brantley raved at its off-Broadway premiere in October, praising a powerful range of influences from Homer, Milton, the Bible and Shakespeare to Hollywood melodramas. He described it as “a thorough and original anatomy of an alternative Universe”, and with its Supremes-like Chorus of Real Women, its sly bawdiness, sexual gender-bending and rituals it calls up the ghost of Jean Genet.
Wig Out! was inspired by dedicated drag-queens - male transvestites and pre-operative transsexuals taking hormones who would never go the whole way to gender-changing. It is a play full of echoes and rough poetry as it views the private lives of people who McCraney says are routinely ostracised and laughed at. “There’s an inherent fear of them [transvestites and transsexuals] - as if you could catch their way of living and being.”
He came to know this world because one of his best friends was a hormone-taking male-to-female transsexual. He got to know many of them. He was inspired by their “beautiful, glamorous, sad, dangerous stories”. He observed their fabulous drag-balls, “their cut-throat, vicious, fiercely competitive fashion competitions”.
He offers something more than sensationalism in his description of these early-twenties, mainly black drag queens, who formed themselves into rival, competitive “houses”.
For McCraney they are brave, closed communities, alternative families, living and socialising outside the conventional frame of life. That he has made such sympathetic, astute observations of these queenly people, these long-term gender-game players, has plenty to do with the fact that he finds cause with them and admires their “I am what I am” attitude to life.
Now poised after such a successful year in Britain to become a playwright-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, McCraney has become America’s most famous theatrical export. No one writes plays remotely like his.
Looking back on those early years he recalls his younger self, ignorant of matters of sexual orientation, craving to “be at peace”. Questions of sexuality or gender never came into his mind. “Can I be my most intimate self without fear now?” he asks rhetorically. “My answer has yet to be yes.” I think though, to quote La Cage aux Folles, the best is yet to come.
Wig Out! is at the Royal Court until 10 January. Information: 020 7565 5000, www.royalcourttheatre.com).
-The Evening Standard
Posted by Adam Immerwahr, Producing Associate at McCarter Theatre.