Academy Award-winning playwright shares experiences as black, queer artist


Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney poses at the 89th Academy Awards in February. McCraney spoke about how his experiences as a black, queer artist have influenced his scripts at a Friday event.

Lucia Boyd, Reporter

One day after watching Thursday’s premiere of the Northwestern student production “In the Red and Brown Water,” Academy Award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney shared how his experiences as a black, queer artist helped shape the script.

The Friday event — attended by about 215 people at the Josephine Louis Theater — was hosted by the Black Arts Initiative and was part of “Black Arts International: Temporalities and Territories,” a weeklong series of conferences.

McCraney said the event was like “coming home” for him, because Communication Prof. Henry Godinez, one of McCraney’s college professors, co-directed the NU production of his play.

Aspiring playwrights should draw from their own background and embrace their individuality when writing because everyone has a unique perspective, McCraney said. He added that his experiences as a Christian and as a black, queer person in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami shaped his identity, and later his plays. He said interactions with drug dealers, sex workers, teachers and librarians also affected his plays.

“People think, ‘Oh, you went and researched this culture and then created this (play),’” McCraney said. “I grew up with those stories, and I just put them on stage. It’s low-key what Shakespeare did.”

The NU production of his play was “thrilling,” McCraney said, because it reminded him of his own background. With tears in his eyes, he said the decision by the main character, Oya, to take care of her sick mother rather than attend school reflects his own regret of leaving his mother while she suffered from AIDS.

McCraney, who also co-wrote the movie “Moonlight,” said he tries to bring attention to social issues by telling stories of individual lives.

“I wrestle in the upending of supremacy and patriarchy all the time, but not to use them as global words, but more so to really talk about how they affect lives,” McCraney said.

Though his work as chair of playwriting at Yale University keeps him busy, McCraney said he has begun work on a new TV show pitch with Oprah Winfrey. At the same time, he said, his students have inspired him to write more plays.

It was a “wild experience” to perform for and meet McCraney, Communication junior Jordan Moore told The Daily. He said the cast didn’t know McCraney attended the show Thursday until he came backstage and hugged them, leaving the group “awestruck.”

Moore said he enjoyed McCraney’s talk Friday and learned about the artistic process behind “In the Red and Brown Water.”

Communication freshman Liana Runcie, an aspiring playwright, told The Daily she appreciated the University inviting a speaker whose talk inspired hope about her own dreams.

“I am in a place where I can produce work that Oscar-winning writers can appreciate,” Runcie said. “Having that input is so valuable.”

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