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Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney making waves in the theater world

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; E01

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.

His consolation was theater: an improv troupe for teenagers in the projects that presented realistic pieces in drug rehabilitation centers, including one in which his mother had been a client. The urgency of the stories they dramatized -- "We were doing scenes from our lives" -- helped him overcome a reticent nature. "The richness of the theater was incredible for me," he explains. It would continue to inspire him as he made his way through a Miami high school for the arts and Chicago's DePaul University, by which time he'd already started writing plays.

The encomiums for his writing began to circulate while he was still in graduate school. Eustis recalls receiving messages from friends about a project of McCraney's in the young man's second year at Yale. He sent an associate to see it in New Haven and he came back raving about it. "The last time I can remember a writer igniting this level of excitement was Suzan-Lori Parks," Eustis adds of the widely admired playwright who would win the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Topdog/Underdog."

The trilogy tumbled out of him in the years after he left Yale. (Another of his works, "Wig Out!," about gay men and a competitive drag ball, was staged at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre in the fall of 2008.) In the cycle of plays set in the Deep South, McCraney has been developing his own theatrical style, one that draws on literary and folk traditions from other times and places.

'Water' runs deep

"In the Red and Brown Water," for instance, is loosely based on "Yerma," Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca's tragedy of a stifled and childless Spanish woman. As in "The Brothers Size," the American characters of "Red and Brown Water" are given names and attributes that correspond to figures in the Yoruba mythology of West Africa. To these acts of culture-borrowing, the playwright adds yet other narrative inventions, such as requiring actors to recite the play's stage directions.

"When you first read it, you don't realize how many layers there are," director Seiden says of "Red and Brown Water," which concerns the life-defining choices facing a young woman named Oya, who is given a chance to escape her dismal existence. "It's a very unusual combination of gritty realism and the epic: It's [set in] the worst projects in America, but you've got this incredibly colorful, colloquial speech.

"What touched me specifically," Seiden adds, "is the themes of education and opportunity, which of course I think apply so much to [McCraney]. And in this case Oya is the stand-in. It really is about what happens when a person has an opportunity and doesn't take it and is stuck."

Raushanah Simmons, who plays Oya, says that what's impressed her is the way McCraney's play can elucidate "this very complex question of why these things happen in urban environments" and illuminate the circumstances "for people who don't know what urban poverty is like."

The actress has not met McCraney, but feels inordinately close to him, the way people often do with a writer who speaks to them. "I equate it to Shakespeare," she says. "There are things on that page, the more you explore them, the more you find."

In the Red and Brown Water

Through Feb. 14. Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit http://www.studiotheatre.org.

Read Peter Marks's review this week in Style.

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