The housing projects of Miami and the Royal Shakespeare Company in London probably seem about as far apart as two places can get, but for playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose latest play Choir Boy has its Atlanta premiere at the Alliance this month, they're both stops on a life trajectory that seems as incredible as anything from the most dramatic play. McCraney spent much of his early life being raised by his young mother in the Liberty Projects of Miami, which have been identified as among the nation's worst.
But playwriting and performing always provided a sense of release for McCraney, and he participated in several theater programs for at-risk youth as a child and then went on to study as an undergraduate at the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago and as a graduate at the Yale School of Drama. In 2007, he won the Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition for his script In the Red and Brown Water, which was produced by the Alliance Theatre. It proved to be a crucial step in his career, and McCraney since went on to become international playwright-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, a position he held for three years, and a member of Chicago's prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre. We caught up with McCraney, who is often as aesthetically spare in his speech as he is in his writing, to discuss the new play, his return to Atlanta, and the things he's been up to since his last production here.
Choir Boy had a pretty incredible world premiere this summer up in New York: a glowing review in the New York Times, sold-out shows, several extensions to the run, and more. Was there one moment that you think of as particularly surprising or gratifying, some sort of personal highlight or milestone that maybe people didn't see?
The truth be known the most exciting things were happening on the stage. I got to work with those incredible actors, Jeremy Pope and Nicholas Ashe. And to get to know them as young people is sort of extraordinary. I'm really excited to see where they go and all that they brought to the piece.
For people who aren't familiar with Choir Boy yet, can you share a little bit about the show and what the inspiration was for writing it?
Choir Boy is a play about an all-male prep school, Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. It chronicles the senior year of a kid named Pharus Young who is lead of the choir, which is sort of the calling card for the school. The inspiration was dealing with a young man who may not fit into what we think of as the model of young black men and the trials of that year.
Would you say that the play is at all based on your own experiences? Did your adolescence look like Pharus' at all?
No. Pharus is unique in that he's outspoken and flamboyant and extraordinarily smart. He's a genius and ahead of his time. Those are the things that help him and also get him into trouble.
The school in the play is in the South. Is it based on a real school?
No. There are no more schools like it. There used to be schools like it in the United States, but they don't exist anymore.
Why do you think it's important to bring the play to Atlanta?
I grew up in the South. Particularly I'm just excited to have it at the Alliance. I think audiences there will have interesting discourse with the piece. I always find those audiences smart but also viscerally aware. That's always a gift to any play.
After your first production here you became playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. That's pretty mind-blowing. Tell us about your time with that institution.
I actually got that job while I was in Atlanta working on In the Red and Brown Water. I was there for three years, and now I'm an associate artist with them working to create a production of Antony and Cleopatra, which starts rehearsal on the 23rd. It was a really extraordinary time. I got to learn a lot. It followed on my post-graduate education. Diving into this scholarly and intense relationship with Shakespeare's work, I think it just provided an opportunity I was blessed to have. It afforded an opportunity to look at the canon and see how it affected my work and the work around me.