Tarell Alvin McCraney is probably the only person born and raised in Miami’s impoverished Liberty City neighborhood, to become the International Playwright in Residence for the Royal Shakespeare Theater Company. Same goes for winning a MacArthur “Genius” Grant.
Two Bay Area theaters are presenting plays by McCraney this month. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is doing the West Coast premiere of Head of Passes, a play that takes its themes from the Biblical Book of Job, and won praise for its first production in Chicago in 2013.
The Marin Theatre Company is staging the Bay Area premiere of McCraney’s Choirboy which premiered to good reviews in New York City the same year.
I talked to McCraney at Berkeley Rep’s rehearsal space in West Berkeley a few days ago. Before we talked, I sat in on a rehearsal as performers worked on a scene from Head of Passes that McCraney had rewritten the night before.
McCraney watched, mostly without comment, as the actors tried to get the new lines just right, under the direction of Tina Landau of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company. Landau directed the play’s world premiere in Chicago.
I asked McCraney why he felt he needed to rework the play:
(Interview has been edited for length and clarity)
It’s always thrilling and at the same time, sort of nerve-wracking. You don’t want to throw the actors off, but you want to make sure the play continues to strengthen.
This play already had a production in Chicago. So what’s going through your head when you think, "I need to change things."
Plays are living things. They are performance pieces. So every time they get a new cast, they are in a new space, and we grow as people. So you want to deepen how the play works, but also tailor it for the performers to help them connect with the audiences.
So for us that’s been a part of the work going into it, making sure we create a space for the actors, but also make sure we deepen the story of Head of Passes, which is about a woman who is told some pretty bad news about her health and her family, and we watch her career, her journey with her faith.
And the journey of faith is a complicated story. It's deeply personal. For instance the question of why are we here? Why do things happen? What is my purpose?
When all of that occurs, we then begin to sort of to try to put it together in a kind of science. And that is faith in a way. It’s our reaching for a construction of trying to figure out some very large questions that are part of the human condition. And in that way Head of Passes is a piece into that journey into that human condition.
The play is based on The Book of Job, which asks but doesn’t answer the question of why bad things happen to good people and their families. And some terrible things happen to the woman Shelah, who is at the center of your play. So where did you first encounter Job growing up?
I read Job a long time ago in church, (and as an undergrad in college.)
When the first commission for the play came, we sat in a room full of actors and just read the book of Job for a few weeks. And it became clear to me the Book of Job has antecedents in other religions. Basically the story of struggle, and how we maintain or endure with or without faith is a part of every cosmology and religion that we know of.
And why is that story so important to us? What is it about irrevocable change that helps us get through it?
Those questions kept coming up for me. And I thought, I can’t be the only person who’s thinking that. Why don’t we create a piece that investigates that in a contemporary American way.
What kind of religious faith did you grow up with?
I grew up with grandparents who were deeply Baptist and Methodist, on both sides of my family.
And did they take you to church?
Oh yeah. Often.
And how did that experience shape you?
The faith has shaped me, mostly I think my relationship with my grandparents who believed in something, shaped my own faith. Rather than thinking ‘I must be a part of this group.’ I always felt like I had a choice. And I attribute that to my grandparents. They always taught you don’t have to be in anybody’s face to be a good person, to be understanding. You don’t have to read it every day to practice compassion.
The Head of Passes, what’s that refer to?
The Head of Passes is a place on the Mississippi River, located on the tip of the Louisiana peninsula, out into the gulf of Mexico. It’s a patch of land that is very amorphous. I think the Army Corps of Engineers says we lose a football field of that land every two or three weeks.
Is there a metaphor there about what the Mississippi does to the land there and what fate, or God, does to the character of Shelah in your play?
I’m always interested that when I speak to people about the play and this place, they’re always like, ‘Oh, that sounds like a terrible place to live.’ And I think to myself that people live on fault lines that are going to blow up any day now. We all live in places, where as much as we think of earth as terra firma, that even the ground we stand on can be swept from under us, and those things happen to the best of people, and the least of us.
How did you first discover theater, growing up in Miami.
I grew up Liberty City, which is in the center of Miami. And I started theater fairly young there. In church we did plays, and I was in those plays. But there was also the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, which was located a couple of blocks from my home. I did plays there since I was about 8 or 9, and then went to a middle school for theater and then went to a performing arts High School, and then undergraduate and graduate school all in acting and playwriting.
When did you think, "I’m going to be a playwright," or work in theater?
I never thought it. It just was happening. My first job at 14 was in a rehabilitation program that used theater as peer education. So I did that till I was about 20. So there was never a decisive moment when I thought, ‘oh this is it.’
That must have been hard sometimes to tell your friends, "Oh, I’m going to rehearse a play," instead of hanging out or playing sports.
I recognize you must think I had a lot of friends. But clearly, you’re mistaken. I’m much more or an introvert than that. And I didn’t have a lot of friends in middle school to tell I was on the way to anything. I went to rehearsal and went home. And most of my friends were in theater as well.
And your parents, did they support your choice?
For the most part. Yeah. I think my dad caught on late to what I was up to. And then he sort of went ‘Oh. That’s what you’ve been doing.’
What did he think when he finally caught on?
Well by that time, I had a scholarship as an undergrad (DePaul University). And he was happy I was going to college and not having to pay for it.
And your mom died when you were 22. What did she make of your choice of a life in theater?
I don’t know. I think she just wanted me to be happy. She always wanted me to feel free, I think, so she won. I feel free most of the time.
I wonder if your parents or elements of them ever inspire characters in your plays?
I often times look at The Crucible and think where are Arthur Miller’s parents in The Crucible, or where is he or the relationships he had. It’s interesting to me that rarely do people dissect his work that way.
I get this question often.
But no. The people in the plays aren’t based on anyone solely. But I’m sure they’re a hybrid of all the people I’ve met before.
Or as my brother says, much to my chagrin, they’re all Tarell. They’re all pieces of me that I don’t even know about myself. And I think that’s true of humanity. We can try to divorce ourselves from our work. But our thumbprint, the tent of us is on it. Whether we like it or not.
So where do the characters voices come from? Do you hear them in your head as you’re writing?
Yes, I can hear them. I type or I will talk it into a tape recorder. I just try to get it down before I forget it or it goes away.
So does that ever freak you out, when you hear their voices?
They’ve been there so long. No. They don’t send me running to the therapist. Not them, no. I’ve heard them all my life. It never felt odd. Sometimes they wake you up though.
You’re a black playwright. A gay playwright. Have those identities ever been barriers to getting your work produced? How have you been welcomed into the world of theater?
Most writers have hurdles they have to overcome. We know the American theater isn’t as diverse as we’d like it to be. We know that the American audience isn’t as diverse as we’d like it to be.
But I personally have been blessed with not feeling aggressively shunned or shut out. There have been times when people -- they don’t want or like my voice. But I don’t think it’s necessarily because I’m black or gay, I think it’s because they didn’t like my voice. And that’s fine too. But I think it’s important to recognize the taste that we are allowed to have in the theater is skewed. And we have to allow as many voices into the theater as possible to really get the full palate of what the American experience is like today.