Through the wonders of electronic mail, I was able to have a conversation with Tarell Alvin McCraney, the author of “In the Red and Brown Water.” For a prolific playwright, I found him to be a man of relatively few words, but I was able to get some more details from exactly the kind of mind that earned a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant.
McCraney was born in 1980 in the Liberty City area of Miami, Fla. He attended New World School of the Arts High School, earning an Exemplary Artist Award. After high school, he studied at the Theater School at DePaul University in Chicago, receiving the Sarah Siddons Award and a BFA in acting. Beyond college, Tarell attended the British-American Drama Academy (BADA) at Oxford, studying Shakespeare. But his education didn’t stop there. From the Yale School of Drama, he earned an MFA in playwriting, along with its Cole Porter Award.
With this impressive background, doors opened for him, including Chicago’s Northlight and Steppenwolf Theater companies. I asked him how this opportunity has made him a better playwright, and he responded, “Being an ensemble member at Steppenwolf allows me the freedom to write for a company of actors, directors and artists that I know, love and trust.”
Among his theatrical influences, he lists such acclaimed playwrights as John Guare, August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, Amy Herzog, Arthur Miller, Anton Chekov and Katori Hall. With Tarell’s impressive lineup of written works, he undoubtedly appears on the inspiration lists of many young playwrights himself.
In addition to “In the Red and Brown Water” (part of his “Brother/Sister Plays” trilogy), Tarell is the author of “Head of Passes,” “Choir Boy,” “American Trade,” “Without/Sin,” “Wig Out!” and “Run, Mourner, Run.” He also co-authored “The Breach,” a story of post-Katrina New Orleans.
I wondered what led him to choose rural Louisiana as the setting for “In the Red and Brown Water,” and his answer surprised me: “I didn’t. I placed it near the bayou, and everyone assumed that’s where it was, so I said sure, it can take place there.”
When I referred to McCraney’s storytelling style as groundbreaking, he was quick to remind me, “The employ of story theater in my work is not a new theatrical device. The form has been used in theater practice from Peter Brook to Noh. It allows the actors to tell the story directly to the audience and allows them to experience the movement of the story together rather than in two separate spaces.”
Having worked as a writer, actor, and director, Tarell observes, “Theater work is collaborative; it’s important to know what your collaborators do in service of the work.”
The interviewer got himself interviewed when I asked Tarell what he’d say to H-T readers to encourage them to come see his play. He replied, “Do you like the play?” (That’s a yes from me, by the way.) “You know your readers better than I do. What would you say to one of them if they said, ‘Red and Brown Water? About impoverished people in the South? Why should I see it?’ What would you say to them? Are they interested in stories about places far away yet right next door? Are they inspired by people who seemingly are different to them, yet somehow dealing with the same desire to love, live and thrive? To be honest, I hope I have put my best creative efforts inside the play rather than the pitch to see it.”
Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. Story Link