TARREL ALVIN MCCRANEY ON LIFE AS A PLAYWRIGHT
Interviewed By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Thursday, May 05, 2011.
Tarell Alvin McCraney who is currently Playwright-in-Residence with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) recently directed the company’s Young People's Shakespeare production of Hamlet. Over the space of nearly five years, his versatile plays have explored the drag club scene in New York, the overlooked influence of Yoruba mythology in the United States, and the traumatic effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. His plays - In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size - enjoyed a simultaneous run at the Young Vic, whilst Wig Out! played to acclaim at The Royal Court Theatre in London.
Although much of his works have been about his native USA, his latest work depicts the experiences of an American hustler trying to make it big in London. With 20 plus characters and an accomplished ensemble of Royal Shakespeare Company actors, American Trade promises to be another entertaining piece.
Born and raised in Liberty City, Miami, Florida, the award-winning playwright and actor has experienced success in his professional life contrasted with some traumatic events in his personal. His father left home; his mother began using drugs and became addicted to crack. She died when McCraney was just 23 having contracted AIDS from an abusive partner, and in 1992 Hurricane Andrew destroyed every possession in their home.
I spoke to the thirty-year old writer recently about his work.
Jamie Lloyd, Associate Director of the Donmar Warehouse, directs - his first for the RSC. What is it like seeing work you have written transformed and interpreted by someone else?
There is no doubt in my mind about working with Jamie. I know his work very well. I have seen his work, friends of mine have worked with him; so I totally trust his instinct, but also his talent. Hopefully this is just the beginning of working with him.
How did you prepare for the play American Trade.
This process is a different process from most plays. Most times when new plays come up they commission me and I go away and come back and write the script. In this case, we (knew) what actors were going to be in each part of the play. We had to work backwards; we had improves and workshops before the script was finished. Jamie and I worked a lot on figuring out the style of the piece. It asks you to put your imagination into specific places and it’s a learning experience that not many playwrights get the chance to have. I have not worked like this before [and] it feels like a very it feels like a very collaborative effort.
Tell me about your experiences as RSC Playwright-in-Residence?
As writer in residence I will be here until American Trade premieres in June. It has been a beautiful learning experience. Like all jobs it has had its challenges and its rewards. I have really learnt the administrative side of theatre and the way it all works. I have also learned a great deal about ensembles and the way they work - and also about Shakespeare in an intimate way, so it’s been a very rewarding process.
Yoruba mythology was an important element of both The Brothers Size, and In The Red and Brown Water – what sparked your interest in this worldview and mythology?
The Yoruba cosmology has always been part of my life. I am from Miami and we have a celebrated Cuban, Haitian and Puerto Rican culture there, that in ways unbeknownst to most people celebrate Yoruba deities anyway; so I grew up with those stories; those were the stories of my heritage and [were] based on the stories of my upbringing.
What do you think of African-Americans and their retention of the idea of Africa?
In Cuba, Puerto Rico or even in Jamaica for example those retentions [of] the African religion [such as] drumming and language was repressed in the same way [as it was in the United States] but the coding was different. In Cuba they married Catholic ideology with the Yoruba deities and called it Santeria.; they worshipped behind the guise of Catholicism. Those retentions remain [in the USA ] - especially in the South - and they still have all of the old school sayings and doings that they have carried over that come from a richer tradition.
What is your view on your previous successful productions?
If I get the play up that’s a success. If the actors get to say the lines that I put down on the page that will be a success. My job is to come in and invest as much as I can and leave it when I can’t do any more.
You have worked in the United States and the United Kingdom – what are your perceptions of similarities or differences in both countries and especially the Black community in each?
I think that what is interesting is that in the UK [as opposed to the US] the audiences are more apt to explore many different versions of a people; I don’t think we [in the US] are able to say: ‘this is an American story but so are these’; you in London are able to say ‘there is no one London story; there are about 90!’. In America we seem to find that hard - that there is more than one perspective. It adds to the diversity of the conversation. I like that there are these beautiful differences and nuances and it highlights [different] parts of the human condition.
How can playwrights broaden the roles and types of stories about of African-Americans and Black actors generally?
I try to. My actor friends are more excited. They always tell me: “I get the chance to do this; it is like a breath of fresh air”. It is hard though because my work doesn’t pay them very well; they have to go back and do things they don’t necessarily want to do but they have to - because they have to eat. [Having said that] I could do a lot more - especially for women of colour. I think I could do more in helping to explore those stories. .
What is next for you after this run?
There is a lot going on actually. Immediately after [American Trade] I go into workshops for other [US-based] commissions; then I do some more work probably with the RSC. I think our [Young Peoples Shakespeare] Hamlet is going to a couple more places.
How do you spend your spare time?
I hang out here with my homies and we chill or we go to the park or a good restaurant for lunch or something. I have a problem though - I probably need to be much more social than I actually am.
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
02 – 18 June 2011
London NW3 3EU.
020 7722 9301
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.