Tarell Alvin McCraney: I revere dance over more art forms. I watch a lot of dance. I study a lot of dance. Because the body never lies, really. So it's when we can see the body in space and what stories the body can't tell or what specific things the body can't say. I mean, a hunched over back and hands in the face more often than not mean grief. And then what kind of grief is happening, is what the words do. They specify and narrow down. And that, to me, is interesting theater, is when the emotion or when the need of the moment is being, every aspect, is used to make more specific the feeling. And by making things more specific, we also make things more universal. So that's how I like to work. I like to work in that way. I like to work in a way that will make people think, “I can't do this at home. I can't sit home and watch this on television. I have to be in the life space and listen to see this piece happening in front of me.”
Jo Reed: That's playwright and 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Tarell Alvin McCraney. And, this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm the host and producer Josephine Reed.
In late September, the MacArthur Foundation named the 2013 recipients of their Genius Award. One of the 24 MacArthur Fellows was Tarell Alvin McCraney. At 32, McCraney has produced a strong body of work that uses mythological themes and religious imagery to explore African American lives with great compassion. His best known work is the one that put him on the theatrical map when he was in his 20s: “The Brother/Sister" plays, a trilogy set in a housing project in Louisiana in what McCraney calls "the distant present." In these plays, McCraney explores coming of age, family, and community through the lens of West African mythology. With a raw and poetic street language and a meta-theatricality, the first of the trilogy, "The Brother Size," is a talk, three person play about brotherhood. The second, in "The Red and Brown Water," tells the story of an African American teenager who postpones a university athletic scholarship to take care of her sick mother. The final play in the trilogy, "Marcus or The Success of Sweet," is a young black man's search for his sexual and personal identity. In 2009, Princeton's McCarter Theatre presented McCraney's trilogy giving "Marcus" it's world premiere. We were lucky enough to sit in on a rehearsal for "Marcus" and speak with Tarrell McCraney.
Over the years we've played a couple clips from that interview, but now seems like a good time to hear it in its entirety. Tarrell and I began our conversation, naturally enough, with the business at hand: the world premiere of his play "Marcus or the Success of Sweet."
Tarell Alvin McCraney: You know, “Marcus” was the ugly duckling for a while. It just got on my nerves and I was just like-- I guess I had a hard time, at first, allowing it to be as funny as it is. That play is so funny.
Jo Reed: I heard you laughing in the rehearsals yesterday.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: It's so funny to me. And I keep trying not to because I know some critic is going to come to the theater and be like sitting behind me during the opening or something be like "why does he think his own play is so funny?" And, of course, my answer to them would always be, "well, if it wasn't funny to me, why did I write it?" But it's incredibly funny about a very serious topic. And I think that was hard for me. That was hard for me to get over the fact that this was extremely funny. It was coming out in this very funny way. It was coming out in this very sort of--if I would have to put it in a category, it's definitely one of the romantic plays because it's all over the place. It's got a lot of passionate in it. It's really funny. It's sometimes really sad, sometimes heartbreaking.
Jo Reed: It's sweet.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: It's sweet, yeah. “Marcus” is really sweet. And I had a problem writing a sweet story at first because I was like well, people are going to think I'm softening up and I'm not writing these sort of hardheaded, Greek, kind of, African stories that burst open and are terribly tragic but also very strong willed and percussive. And it's like sometimes it's all right to write the flu arpeggio. It's all right to do the pizzicato piece, it's okay. And so once I got over that I really just love it. It's such a little gem of a play and it's so fast and so sweet and so pretty. And, you know, you hate the pretty girls in school. And so you kind of grow to love them when you realize they can't help being pretty. And so “Marcus” you can't help but be pretty. And it's charming and it will charm the hell out of you. And so I'm happy to see it on stage. And I'm also really excited. I'm really excited that it also has come with a lot of other work about gay black life because that was one of the struggles that I had which is that, you know, writing a play about gay black life, I certainly don't want to make it appear like it's all roses. And “Marcus” doesn't do that. “Marcus” certainly has some very dangerous dark places that it goes. I also didn't want it to seem not gritty. But then I've written two or three other plays that sort of complement that. So that, for me, is important. And we've got to continue to write plays that are black, gay stories, because they're not enough and I'll continue to write them. At first I think I was a little hesitant about that but when I look at the paper and I see there are two boys of color both only about 11 who hung themselves because they were being tormented at school for being gay within a month's time away from each other, you know what I mean. And miles and miles apart. So it's not a southern thing. It's not a northern thing. It's something that's happening. And whether or not these boys were homosexual or not, that's what they were being jeered for. And that's what ultimately drove them to their end. So those stories need to continue to be told. They're important stories because they're American stories. And the sooner that we can realize that A. every American deserves their story to
Jo Reed: Now, “Marcus” is getting its world premiere next week.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Yeah. No pressure.
Jo Reed: None at all. How is it seeing it on the stage?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, we've had workshops of it, thank God, because “Marcus” was the ugly duckling for a while. It just got on my nerves and I was just like-- I guess I had a hard time, at first, allowing it to be as funny as it is. That play is so funny.
Jo Reed: I heard you laughing in the rehearsals yesterday.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: It's so funny to me. And I keep trying not to because I know some critic is going to come to the theater and be like sitting behind me during the opening or something be like, what does he think his own play is so funny? And, of course, my answer to them would always be, well, if it wasn't funny to me, why did I write it? But it's incredibly funny about a very serious topic. And I think that was hard for me. That was hard for me to get over the fact that this was extremely funny. It was coming out in this very funny way. It was coming out in this very sort of-- I don't know. It's sort of a-- if I would have to put it in a category, it's definitely one of the romantic plays because it's sort of-- it's all over the place. It's got a lot of passionate in it. It's really funny. It's sometimes really sad, sometimes heartbreaking.
Jo Reed: It's sweet.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: It's sweet, yeah. “Marcus” is really sweet. And I had a problem writing a sweet story at first because I was like well, people are going to think I'm softening up and I'm not writing these sort of hardheaded Greek kind of African stories that burst open and are terribly tragic but also very strong willed and percussive. And it's like sometimes it's all right to write the flu arpeggio. It's all right to do the pizzicato [ph?] piece, it's okay. And so once I got over that I really just love it. It's such a little gem of a play and it's so fast and so sweet and so pretty. And, you know, you hate the pretty girls in school. And so you kind of grow to love them when you realize they can't help being pretty. And so “Marcus” you can't help but be pretty. And it's charming and it will charm the hell out of you. And so I'm happy to see it on stage. And I'm also really excited. I'm really excited that it also has come with a lot of other work about gay black life because that was one of the struggles that I had which is that, you know, writing a play about gay black life, I certainly don't want to make it appear like it's all roses. And “Marcus” doesn't do that. “Marcus” certainly has some very dangerous dark places that it goes. I also didn't want it to seem not gritty. But then I've written two or three other plays that sort of complement that. So that, for me, is important. And we've got to continue to write plays that are black, gay stories, because they're not enough and I'll continue to write them. At first I think I was a little hesitant about that but when I look at the paper and I see there are two boys of color both only about 11 who hung themselves because they were being tormented at school for being gay, I mean---within a month's time away from each other, you know what I mean. And miles and miles apart. So it's not a southern thing. It's not a northern thing. It's something that's happening. And whether or not these boys were homosexual or not, that's what they were being jeered for. And that's what ultimately drove them to their end. So those stories need to continue to be told until we can-- well, they're important stories because they're American stories. And the sooner that we can realize that every American deserves their story to be told a) but also to be involved in the conversation that is our community, we need to continue to have those stories. So for me, “Marcus” comes at a very important time.
Jo Reed: It was interesting in watching the rehearsal yesterday, because clearly your writing is so vibrant and poetic, and yet seeing you jump up on that stage, it was like watching a choreographer work. It's a nice combination.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Oh. Well, thank you. I mean, when I was in grad school, I met a writer, a young writer. He's actually older than me by a year, but he was at the Yale School of Drama. His name is Marcus Gardley, and he's incredible. I think he's probably one of the best playwrights that I've ever met. And the reason why I say that is, reason why I'm bringing him up, is because people like to compare us, to talk about how very similar we were. And I couldn't see the similarities, save that we were both black and playwrights. I mean, I just… <laughs> And the reason why is because Marcus is a poet, I mean, a true poet. I mean, an incredible poet. His poetry alone is gifted and incredible. And then when his poetry's inside of the work, it becomes something. I mean, it's a joy to be able to have that kind of poetry in the mouth. I don't come from the same background as him. My poetry, or the way in which I choose to speak or write, comes from very dramatic place. It comes from the stage. I understand and am dramatic in the sense of what the actor needs, the utility of the words. The actual usage and need of the words, not necessarily how they sound or look on the page. And that difference to me is just brought about simply because I'm an actor first or I was on the stage first, and using words in the moment to prove the point, to get to the next section, to do whatever needed to be done. And the poetry that comes out of it is the poetry of necessity.
Jo Reed: It's interesting, because I read your plays.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Mm-hm.
Jo Reed: And it was a very different experience from seeing them on the stage. The way it came alive for me on the stage was, it was really so compelling. Which isn't to say it wasn't on the page.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Oh, sure.
Jo Reed: But it just didn't have the same immediacy but urgency. And I think that's what's so interesting about your work is that it clearly is theater.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: For me, it's about trusting that what I'm putting on the page I'm getting from looking in the space. When I was working with Peter Brook, very recently, we had a very funny conversation, because whenever I wrote or especially when someone's commissioned me to do something, if I can't see how it is going to work in the space, if I can't see how the play is going to be formed, what set might look like, what the space might feel like, even if I can't see necessarily the set or see the props or the actors, per se, I need to get an understanding of what is happening. The topography on the stage. How is a moment going to be enacted so that I'm sitting in the audience at a certain distance, but I will feel something from that distance away? And I can't write unless I can see it that way. Otherwise I think I'll think to myself, “Oh, this is a piece of a movie.” Or, “This is something else. This is a story I'm telling myself.” But it doesn't become a play until I can see it in the actual space. And he said something very funny to me. He said, “Then that means you're a playwright and not a novelist.” And he said, “More often than not, what happens is you get a lot of novelists who think they're playwrights, who like to write dialogue. And they write these things that are novel-like, and then they hand it over to a director and say, ‘Hey, put it in the space.' And because you already think out what the space can do, if a director ever says, ‘I don't understand this moment. Can you explain it to me?' you can.” And it's true. I can. I can explain to you what I'd like, and then we can expand on the idea, or do another idea. But we know that in the space it works somehow. And that's important, I think, because the only way we're going to get theater to remain <laughs> open for everyone is to continue to invite pieces that are made for the theater, made for the theatrics, that only can happen in the theater. Not only can happen in the theater, but happen in the theater in a dynamic way that they can't in other places.
Jo Reed: How did “The Brother/Sister” plays come into being? It began with “The Brother Size, “ correct?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Yeah, “Brother Size” was written first, and then “Red and Brown” was written second. “Brother Size” I definitely was experimenting. I was like this is an experiment to write this story in a quotidian way using these tools, go. And so it's an important story, I'm going to go, I told it. And there was less sort of-- there was less dreaming involved in putting the story together. It was like this is how the story goes. That's how it goes. It was ordered. It was fashioned. I did it and sort of put it down. And then “In the Red and Brown” came because there were characters that I just, again, I wasn't-- this was one of the few times where I wasn't writing and thinking of the space, per se. I was thinking of the space, but I wasn't thinking what was happening in the space, in relationship to any story, in particular. I just was writing about oh, and this girl comes into the space and she says, this, this and this. And I also have to tell you that when I was writing, it was two o'clock in the morning in Oxford and I was jetlagged. So I wasn't actually writing it. Oh, this is a scene I'm going to write. I would write, oh, I'll write this love nobody to somebody and email it later. But then while I'm writing this I'm also going to write this other thing that's been in my mind, and I would rewrite Shakespeare monologues because I was working on Shakespeare during the day. I was there studying Shakespeare eight to eight every day. And then I would supposedly go to sleep but I was jetlagged. So I would go to sleep right at eight o'clock because my schedule was all off. And then I would wake up at two and I was like I can't get back to sleep so I would stay up until about five writing random things. And eventually I was like oh, oh, I'm writing a play and that's how “Red and Brown” was born. I had like 45 pages of play that I had written and not really known that I was writing it. And then I sort of said, oh I better do something with it.
Jo Reed: And you saw the connection go the “The Brother Size”.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Well, the same characters were speaking inside of it. I mean at first I guess I looked at it and realized that they reflected “Brother Size” in a way but they weren't-- that's why when people call it a trilogy, it's not hard for me to call it a trilogy, I think it's a little maybe inaccurate, just a little bit. Only because trilogies go this is the first part of the story, this is the second part, here's the third. These don't really do that. They don't really go here I'm going to tell you more of the story in this one. It's actually like I'm going to confuse you a little bit because I'm actually not going to talk about that thing that we were talking about before. I'm going to talk about something totally different. There will be people from that other thing in this but we're not continuing that story. That story is kind of there. And if you want to see that, go see it, great. But if you want to talk about this, this is what we're talking about in this play. And, in fact, we're talking about it in a way that may confuse you.
Jo Reed: So the plays are connected but they're not a trilogy as from point A to point B to point C.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Sure, they reflect each other. They refract each other. Sometimes they lie on each other. I mean that's the thing about-- for me that's the important thing about the play is they tell stories from different points of views. So the stories that may reflected about the other plays they tell it from that point of view. Which I think each time stories are reflected or refracted from each other they're told from the point of view of that character. And I think that's important and true to life.
Jo Reed: In “The Brother/Sister Plays,” in these you use mythology, and at the same time you take those figures and it's put, boom, in a housing project.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: -- And the funny thing is, every play has mythology in it. Every play that I've ever written. And every play pretty much written has a archetype dating back. Mythology, mythological stories, from all cultures, have, those origin stories especially, are really just stories to try and put the world together. They're stories to explain how the world works. I'm not saying anything new, I think, about that. But what happens is over time we sort of think, “Oh, but this story's brand-new. We've never heard about a woman killing her own kids.” Or, “We've never heard about a woman who defied the law to bury her brother. We've never heard about a story of a man who slept with his own mother and had child--“ you know, “We've never heard these stories before.” And then you sort of go, “Uh.. <laughs> excuse me. These stories are older than us.” And the written version may be an updated translated version, but it's totally the same. So in “The Brother/Sister Plays,” in all plays, actually, but specifically in “The Brother/Sister Plays,” I try and use those archetypes to show how every day these stories still occur. And the specific portion of it is making them in housing projects or in urban inner city neighborhoods and in the South amongst black people. But I think once you do that, once you make them specific, they become universal in that and, “Oh, I know something. Oh, I know that. That happened in my family.” Or, “I have seen this before.” Those moments to me are important, because they add, they make us human. They make us all go, “Oh, yeah. That person may be black and in the South…” but if I can relate to that story or I know that same archetype or, “Oh, yeah, I know that guy, I've met a guy like that,” then we start to align ourselves with our sameness, as it were, rather than dividing ourselves with our differences. So that's another way to make the theater important is to make that communal act vibrant. To make you have to go, “Oh, yeah. I know that feeling.” “Oh, yeah, I have been there.”
Jo Reed: When you think about your life 10 years ago, would you imagine that you would be here now?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Yeah, some of it.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Some of it. I mean, the part that, you know, still working in the theaters is definitely something that was on my mind 10 years ago. I could imagine it. Whether or not it was actually going to happen was an act of faith. But I certainly thought, or knew, that this is what I wanted to do. There's a feeling that you get. <laughs> In church we say it's like a fire shut up in your bones, but that's not necessarily, I wouldn't describe it the same, but there is something that feels right. There's a match or a call or something that happens. That the grooves fit correct. So I remember at 13, everything felt in line, and then I sort of was very practical but also very spiritual about it in that I was like I recognized that the artist wasn't necessarily in, the artist's path, wasn't necessarily easy one. And I certainly didn't want to be poor all my life. Meaning I didn't want to be-- and when I say poor, I don't mean artist poor. I mean poor as in I didn't want to <laughs> not be able to eat or live, or pay rent and things like that, like I was at the current time. So I remember just saying to God, “You've got to help me sustain this other stuff so I can do this artistic thing.” And I think just like that. <laughs> I was just like, “You've got to help me out, because I have no idea how to do all this stuff. But I know how to do this, and this is what I'll do, and I'll make it work. But you've got to back me up or lead me.”
Jo Reed: Straighten the path. <laughs>
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Yeah, lead me forward. And so, and I think, and I remember, just feeling this overwhelming sense of, “That's what's going to happen.” Or, “That's the deal.”
Tarell Alvin McCraney: And I was like, “Okay. Well, if that's the deal then I'll do it.
Jo Reed: Tell me your experience that made you say-- were you in a play and that's what made you decide it was theater that you wanted? Or did you see a play? Which?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I had the good fortune of always being somehow on the receiving end of the charity handed down to inner city schools, <laughs> which is somebody giving 10 tickets to a school to see a play, or I think Alvin Ailey came through the South Florida area at one point, and we were given tickets to see a part of the dance. All of those different experiences were afforded me. And maybe they were afforded a lot of people. I don't think they're afforded enough, but for me, because I <laughs> my friends say I have a dangerous memory. For details of experiences, because I think about, I see, these things and they sort of get etched in my mind and I can always bring them up. I be like, “Oh, remember that time you said this really funny thing and it was like this?” And they be like, “That happened 15 years ago. Why do you remember that with that much clarity?” I was like, “Oh. Nobody else remembers it like that?”
Tarell Alvin McCraney: So those moments, to me, added up fairly early. They also, the other thing about theater was that there was an amazing sense of community that I didn't have outside of it. I think my brother, could vouch saying that when he played sports there was a sense of community there that he got that was both a part of him being a part of a team being rooted for, or even being rooted against. But there was a communal act in playing the game. And for me, I certainly didn't, I didn't play sports <laughs> And I don't think I would've been good at it anyway. I certainly wasn't very close to a lot of kids in my middle school. And so there was theater, when there was a moment of being on the stage, there was a community there that I wasn't feeling before. And I just remember feeling like, “This isn't just important for me.”
I just realized that it was important for all of us to sort of have that feeling of community. And so that's what did it. That feeling. And it was in piecemeal. It wasn't all at once, but it was like you get enough of it. And then I joined a improve troupe when I was about 15. Must've been 15. Well, 14, because it was in '95. And it was an improve troupe that did preventative-- is that a word? I didn't invent that, did I? Preventative theater. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: It did theater that was preventative. Wonderful. I like when I can talk.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I did theater that it was prevention-based theater for drugs and HIV prevention. And it was around the Miami-Dade area locally first. But what changed about it was we started to do really avant-garde, and I say avant-garde only because we were using avant-garde techniques to tell these very gritty and real serious quotidian inner city stories. Which I don't think many people, especially in Miami, were doing. And especially at that age, were doing. And I think we started to get really good at it. I think it was because of practice and diligence, but it was also because we, the need, the urgency, was there. And I always tell young playwrights, younger playwrights, because whatever. I'm probably… <laughs> every time I walk into a room full of playwrights, I'm still the youngest, normally.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Tarell Alvin McCraney: But every now and then you'll get a group of students who say, “Well, what do you do when you start a play?” And one of the first things is that the story's important to me. Because if it isn't important, if there isn't a need to tell it, per se, then all of a sudden it becomes superfluous. Or I had a teacher, an acting teaching, who used to call it cake. There's bread theater and there's cake theater, and you want to make sure that if you are making a cake theater that you recognize that it's cake. It's got icing, and it's good for you, but if you eat too much of it your teeth will get rotten and you'll die. So you make, you know, nice tart or something like that. But for the most part you need bread theater. You need it to live. And so you want to make sure that the story you're telling is of need, that you need to tell it. That it's something that is on your heart or on your mind and you want to bring it forward. And so that's what was happening in that improve troupe. There were stories that we needed to say. We needed to talk about. Sometimes, I remember we would do shows and we would get into this van, this white van that the rehabilitation center that we were working for provided, and we would drive around sometimes. I don't know if you've ever been to Miami but--
Jo Reed: Yeah, I lived down there for a while.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Oh, good. Then you know that <laughs> it's like 45 minutes to everywhere.
Jo Reed: Mm-hm.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: And we would drive to these halfway houses out in the middle of the Everglades or the Redlands. We'd be in the van, and on the way we just would be talking and chatting and being like, “Okay. We're going to do this scene and we're going to do that scene,” and blah, blah, blah. And then we would get there and we would do it, and the entire ride back we'd be dead silent, because once we got in front of the people who we were talking to, there was no, we couldn't be, hidden. We had to go to a very vulnerable place. And then opening up that place, started a dialogue between us and them about what they needed to say and what we needed to say about the nature of the world we lived in. I mean, we all had had experiences with drugs and alcohol regardless of where we were. Yet we were in school and we were kids and they were either addicts recovering or in detention centers or “delinquents,” quote, unquote. But at some point, there was a common bond made. My first experience of seeing drugs was actually from family. And that experience was almost a roundtable. We all sort of could identify with that, living in the inner city. It wasn't the stories of, “There's this pusher on the corner. He's like, ‘Hey, man, want to try some?'” That actually isn't true for us in the inner city. It was more often than not a cousin or a mother or a father or an uncle or a brother. Right near us who was involved using or selling, and we got either introduced that way, in a very familiar way. And how to combat that kind of prevention. Like, they weren't telling you in state education classes about how to say no when it's your family. When it's something so close to home, when it's in your home. When it's a part of your everyday life. How do you then say no to this person that you supposedly love and care about, who loves and cares about you who is saying, “If you want to come up in this world, you need to push this a little on the corner so that we can have some food to eat”? How do you say no to that? How do you get in someone's face and say, “That's bad thing to do. Don't do it”? That form of judgmental thinking and working was so, well, it didn't work. So we had to come up with ways that introduced a conversation and allowed us to work through, with them, options, that weren't black and white. That said, “Okay. And in the world that we live in, we know that you can make money pushing drugs. You can. It's the truth. And if you're starving, it looks like a very good option. But here are some of the consequences from that. And here are some of the things that you could do outside of that. And here are the choices that are involved in that. And with those choices, from us, come no judgment. Just we're here to offer dialogue about the choice.” Best of luck. Literally, we all have to endure or make a choice. And I thank God that I made certain choices. But only before the grace of God. go I mean, <laughs> I sometimes even think today, I remember, every time I go home, I think to myself, “I might've been a drug dealer had I not figured out, if I had not stumbled upon the right path here and there, that may be me. That could've been me in this last drug war, this last shootout or this last… So I never get too excited or distant. All I need to do is go home one time, or even think about home. And I just, I know there is so much work still to be done, and not enough money, not enough awards will ever change that connection that I have to finish that work,
Jo Reed: Mara said that you're interested in developing a classical theater in Miami?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Yeah. This is a funny long story and I'll try to make it brief and less funny. I am interested in creating a theater. One of the problems with living in Miami is that there is a huge, I feel like, brain drain for the city. A lot of its most talented and brightest natives, people who actually grew up there leave. It's funny, if you go to Miami and you ask people where they're from most people aren't from there. I'm actually a third generation Miamian. My grandmother was born there. My father was born there. My mother was born there. I was born there. And for me it's important to, though, I'm doing a lot of great things elsewhere go back there and to invigorate or to continue to add that community what I can. And so one of the ideas is to create a theater company that does classical work in new and inventive ways for free in the park in Bayfront Park during the winter season. And so it would be something that would be free for the community. And also help boost tourism. And then during the offseason seasons it would do more contemporary works and hold workshops for new writers and new artists in the area. But there's no major regional theater there. There's no theater of that size and that capacity. And so the idea was to do that. And there was a foundation called the Knight Foundation, who held a competition. They wanted us to present initiatives that would change the landscape of the arts in Miami. And I wrote them like a 1,000 word proposal and they liked the proposal and they asked me to do a more in-depth proposal. So I did another in depth proposal. And then they wanted a budget. And I was back in New York. And so I was sitting up at two o'clock in the morning doing this budget for this theater that didn't exist. And, of course, I came to the conclusion that in order to do everything that I wanted to do, I needed about $2 million. And it was so funny, my friends were like, You-- because I have problems asking theaters for reimbursement checks for cabs. They're like, “How are you asking for all of this money?” I was like, well, it's not for me. I have no interest in taking this $2 million and building me a house. But I do have interest in taking the $2 million and then matching, it's a matching fund competition. And matching it with some donors I had met, and really creating a theater that was for free, that was-- I mean the problem in Miami is how are you going to have a theater that's going to be doing, “Hamlet” and “Hamlet” can run four hours long. So you say, hey, people of Miami or in the Miami-Dade area we're going to be doing “Hamlet” tonight, this kind of depressing play about this guy who loses his father and spends four hours trying to kill his uncle. Come see it. Come in out of this warm beautiful weather inside a dark theater, sit for a while and watch everybody die by the end of the play. It's a hard sell. But if you say, hey, come see this play that may not be four hours because we'll get Peter Brook to come do his version which is like two-and-a-half hours. And it's outside in this amphitheater and we'll sell drinks and it's free and it's something you can do now between now and going to the club or going out to party later on. And come by, just check us out. And then you come and you see a beautiful play. And it's right on the bay. I mean it's taking in all of the things that are interesting about Miami and making them work for Miami. And then go home. Or then go out. And I thought it was a good idea. I think they thought it was a good idea too, but then the sort of economic turn, they were like how are you going to be able to match $2 million. You're not even an artistic director. You're like 28. How are you going to do this? And I just sort of said, well, I'm ambitious. There's a part of me that is grateful that it actually didn't happen because I really would have had to stop my life entirely to devote it to that. But a part of me still really wants to do that and would have welcomed the challenge of saying actually I can't write plays right now I have to go and raise the other $2 million for this theater. I have plans to build the offices and the rehearsal space in this old rec center in Overton which is the oldest black neighborhood in Miami and make the art center free for the community but also have an office there. So it would be this place where the community also had an art center that they could take a company class and they could take dance and they could take theater classes and they could take speech and also watch rehearsals. And for me, that dream is nowhere near dead. I'm working on ways to build my name so that next time I come back down they won't hesitate so much to give me what I need to do it. But it takes, I think, that level of drive and dreaming to do it because it needs to happen. It would benefit so many people so wonderfully. And it would be a fun job to have before I retire. I just imagine bringing in something from South America, some Augusto Boal theater piece, Shakespeare piece or an actual Greek tragedy from Greece and seeing it play on the open air and serving Bacardi drinks while people watch. I mean it just sounds like a good day to me.
Jo Reed: It sounds wonderful.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Thanks.
Jo Reed: It really does.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: You can come down when it happens.
Jo Reed: You bet I will too.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: <laughs>
Jo Reed: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure, it really was.
Tarell Alvin McCraney: Oh, no. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Tarell Alvin McCraney. Tarell has adapted and directed a 90-minute intense and highly praised production of Hamlet, which he's brought to the Miami stage. He's following that up with Antony and Cleopatra, which he sets in Haiti. He considers both plays the first step to creating a winter Shakespeare Festival in Miami that speaks to a younger, underserved audience.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from "History of an Apology" from the album of the same name by Paul Rucker, used courtesy of Paul Rucker.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, the Rutabega Queen herself, Kati Texas.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.