Theater: 'In the Red and Brown Water'

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney making waves in the theater world

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

The future of the American theater does not rest entirely on the shoulders of Tarell Alvin McCraney. But it doesn't appear he'd mind if it did.

Folding his tall, svelte frame into a chair some weeks ago at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, the 29-year-old playwright -- a product of both a hardscrabble Miami childhood and a transformative education at the Yale School of Drama -- warms to the question of where his rapidly accelerating career might be taking him.

The commissions and prizes are piling up. Major theaters on both sides of the Atlantic are clamoring for his work. Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre is about to put on his complete three-drama cycle, "The Brother/Sister Plays," a version of which just ended an extraordinarily well-received run at the Public. In Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company will soon offer his adaptation of "Hamlet" geared for young audiences -- and directed by him.

He's forging ongoing creative partnerships with other estimable companies. One of them is Washington's Studio Theatre, which in 2008 presented one part of the trilogy, "The Brothers Size," about the heartbreaking efforts of a young man in rural Louisiana to watch out for his troubled brother. At the moment the company is mounting the ambitious second installment, "In the Red and Brown Water," revolving around the struggle of a female athlete in a Louisiana housing project. With Studio's Serge Seiden directing a cast of 10, the play has its official opening Sunday night.

So avidly and thoroughly has McCraney been adopted by the theater world, he does not have a practical existence outside of it: He goes from theater residency to theater residency, with no fixed address. "I don't live anywhere," he says, a bit plaintively. And yet, you would be hard-pressed to find a young writer better equipped right now to be breathing the itinerant air of a theater craftsman.

"I'm dedicated to trying to bring a new audience to American theater," he replies, when asked about the goal of his high level of output and concentration. "That's a lot of work."

It's a grandiose statement that is delivered -- if this is possible -- with humility. ("I know it may be naive," he says apologetically.) In a besieged art form, however, you lay a welcome out for such daring. The theater is desperate for young champions, not to mention emerging writers with the passion to stay the course, who want to develop broad portfolios and not abandon the stage the minute a film studio or television executive comes a-calling. McCraney is the standard-bearer for this hope. In the rhapsodic ways leaders of major theaters talk about him, you hear that he has kindled a rare degree of excitement.

'He's the heir'

"Clearly, he's the real thing," declares Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director and a man not unfamiliar with amplifying promising voices: He was a mentor and early advocate of a playwright by the name of Tony Kushner. "The uniqueness of the voice was immediately apparent. And as I've gotten to know him, my respect has increased. He's someone who is utterly committed to using theater for stories that otherwise don't get told, and reaching people who otherwise can't be reached."

Joy Zinoman, Studio's artistic director, seconds these sentiments. She was so taken with McCraney's work that after seeing "The Brothers Size" she agreed to have a production move to Studio, even though the deal offered "no possibility of making money."

The reward, of course, was artistic, and just as importantly the experience established a Washington outpost for the work of McCraney, who is increasingly mentioned as a successor to the late August Wilson, the poetically inclined author of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "Fences," and with whom McCraney worked while a student at Yale. "He's the heir," Zinoman says, adding: "That can be a terrible place to be. He knows you can get trapped in other people's views of you." Fortunately, she says, McCraney has shown to her a steely side that suggests an ability over the long term to navigate the high expectations.

"There's a part of him that's quixotic and mercurial," she says, "and that has to do with the circumstances of his childhood."

McCraney grew up in a world where the floor could figuratively drop out from under and the roof blow off quite literally. His mother, with whom he lived on and off, was a crack addict; she died of complications from AIDS when he was 23. Hurricane Andrew destroyed their apartment in Homestead, Fla., and he went to live as an adolescent with his father in a violence-racked Miami housing project.


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