The man behind ‘Moonlight,’ playwright and MacArthur Fellow Tarell McCraney

Posted on 19 Dec 2016 at 8:39am

 

Tarell McCraney, 2013 MacArthur Fellow“It was a lot,” Tarell Alvin McCraney says of his oddly coincidental evening not long ago, when the out playwright attended the premiere of Moonlight in Miami, where he grew up.

Family he hadn’t met before came out in droves. His brother showed up, and longtime friends too. It also happened to be the birthday of “Kevin,” a childhood confidante from his youth who was the basis for an influential character in Moonlight.

“I’m like…” he starts, grunting with frustration at an experience he calls “difficult” and “complicated.”

“I mean, it was a full moon,” McCraney continues. “It was a year to the day it started filming, it was my birthday weekend – and there was a storm, but then there were, like, clear skies.”

That day, as he watched the film adaptation of his semi-autobiographical stage piece, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, in a theater just a quick jaunt from where he was raised, the intersections between reality and film were palpable. So were his feelings. During the premiere in Miami, “a lot of me wanted to be like, ‘It’s happening, go to sleep,’” but in London, he says, “It was easy to tell the lineal space between reality and myth and fiction.”

McCraney wrote In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue in 2003, while experiencing “depression” and “sadness” as he grieved the loss of his mother, who died that summer. Like the film’s protagonist, Chiron, whose life unfolds in three chapters, the playwright has always preferred expressing himself outside of conversation.

MIAMI BEACH, FL - OCTOBER 15: Tarell Alvin McCraney attends "MOONLIGHT" Cast & Crew Hometown Premiere in Miami at Colony Theater on October 15, 2016 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for A24)“I can talk ad nauseam about art, but ask me how I feel that day and I can barely say about five words,” he says, chuckling. For McCraney, making his press rounds for Moonlight — a major contender at the Golden Globes, recipient just last week of best picture honors (and more) from the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association as well as a frontrunner at the Oscars — is a new, unnerving process. “Normally people ask the same five questions about the play and you kind of go, ‘Thanks so much, and it’s about this and come see it,’ but this is different.”

McCraney wrote his first play at age 13. Later, he graduated from Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program, receiving the Cole Porter Playwriting Award upon graduation. In 2013, the playwright garnered the MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Though McCraney, now 36, has written several plays since his teenage years, including The Brothers Size, which earned him the 2009 New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue reflects his life most intimately and explores a question he has a better grasp of now: “Why wasn’t I brave enough to become like the men I knew in my life?”

Directed by Barry Jenkins, who also grew up in Miami’s Liberty City, just blocks away from McCraney, Moonlight chronicles Chiron’s discovery of identity and sexuality through a multi-tiered, age-shifting narrative: “I: Little,” when we meet small, shy Chiron, who lives with his drug-addicted mother and essentially becomes the adopted son of a compassionate crack dealer, Juan; “II: Chiron,” when he first sexually engages with his friend, Kevin; and “III: Black,” which ends with grown Chiron, hardened and on the same path as Juan, though still sexually conflicted.

“The original piece,” McCraney says, “was and is a kind of meditation on what my life could be, less about what my life actually is.” He unleashes a hearty laugh. “Clearly, I was trying to do some sort of inner excavation. But for me, it’s about watching how identity plays out and looking at chaotic portions of my childhood and trying to figure out when there were other alternatives and what did those alternatives look like.”

Few existed for young McCraney, who snuck ballet lessons behind his father’s back and admits he would’ve felt ashamed to tell this story during his adolescence.

20151113_193323_Moonlight_D23_0117.tif“I think, for me, if there is a someone like me out there…,” he says, trailing off. “I feel like this piece talks so much about an American phenomenon of hyper masculinity that exists in so many forms.”

Because “I was not that brave,” he continues, McCraney admires the brazen nature of child actors Alex R. Hibbert (the first chapter’s “Little”) and Jaden Piner (the first chapter’s Kevin), who he calls “my heroes.”

“Kids are already so much more exposed and integrated than I was in terms of just understanding the voices of the world,” he says. “It’s important for me to see that these young people are finding avenues and platforms in which to speak their truth, not just about their own sexual identity, but that they want a diverse community and that their community is full of the voices that sometimes get siloed and stifled.”

The voice of the black, gay man is finally being heard in Moonlight, as demonstrated by its initial rollout at the end of October, when the film banked an impressive $414,740 on just four screens in New York and Los Angeles.

“People are walking away feeling like they’ve met somebody,” he says. “I think that’s what the film does. Barry was really adamant about making sure that you lived with Chiron and all of his iterations in a way that you probably might not have if this film was made by somebody else.”

For McCraney, “it preserves all the things that are important to me.”

As for the film’s success — both commercially, and as a projected Oscar contender — it’s not something he or Jenkins expected, the playwright says.

“I guess I wasn’t really thinking, ‘Oh, we’re gonna be talking about it at film screenings across the world,’” McCraney admits. “I just thought, ‘We’re telling a really good story, so I’m into it and you’re into it, and we’re into it in the same way, so let’s tell it.’”

— Chris Azzopardi

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