Playwright and actor Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the original source material for the film Moonlight, 2016’s Best Picture Academy Award winner, spoke with candor, intimacy, and humor to an enthralled audience October 13 in the Josephine Louis Theatre.
He addressed a range of issues from adapting his play into a movie to using his own life as the inspiration for his stories. The event, moderated by assistant professor of Communication Studies Aymar Jean Christian, was part of a weeklong conference—Black Arts International: Temporalities and Territories.
McCraney graduated from DuPaul University and received an MFA in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama in 2007, where he now chairs the playwriting department. McCraney, who gave sometimes funny and always heartfelt answers to a variety of questions, discussed at length how his childhood in Liberty City, the inner city of Miami, informed and inspired his stories.
“I was raised in this kind of Christian-other religion world, spiritually. Politically, I’m from Miami, which is third world, right? It’s a banana republic. And intimately, my closest relationships were with drug dealers, sex workers, with teachers, with librarians and using the lexicon of who I am and what I know, I create these things that are important to me,” he said.
While McCraney has written extensively on identity and how people find who they are, he told the audience that he didn’t have a traditional coming out for himself.
“I never had a coming out. There was no day where I was like, ‘everybody, gather round,’” he said, mimicking an overly serious voice and winning laughter from the audience. “That’s not how it works in Liberty City. Just like in Moonlight, I was being chased by the word ‘gay.’”
When Christian asked McCraney about his decision to take the story from a play, In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue, to the big screen, he said it was all about his confidence about the vision of director, Barry Jenkins, who grew up just blocks from McCraney in Liberty City.
“We spent our entire lives in this close proximity but we never met, and the experiences of our story were so similar: we both had drug-addicted mothers and basically absentee fathers, and he just understood that part of the story so well,” he said.
McCraney is flanked by cast and crew of In the Red and Brown Water.
McCraney also discussed the heart-stopping moment at last year’s Oscars when La La Land was erroneously announced as the Best Picture winner.
“First, I was like, we already won two Oscars—life is good!—so now that someone else has won best picture, I clapped, I sat down, and I said, ‘Hey, Barry, where are we going to go eat?’” he joked. Then, when it became clear that something was wrong on stage, he started worrying it might be serious. “I thought – what is this? Is there a terror alert? I’m from Liberty City, so I know when the go-down is happening.”
Even after accepting the award on stage, he said he wasn’t sure it was real. “I told Barry, ‘Hey, let’s go. They might try to take it back!’”
McCraney also wrote the play In the Red and Brown Water, which opened Thursday night at the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. He surprised student cast members by attending the premiere and congratulating them afterward.
McCraney said he wrote the play after wrestling with guilt in the aftermath of his decision to matriculate to college, while his mom, who’d suffered from drug addiction, was sick with HIV. She died a month after he graduated.
“I’ve always regretted that decision,” he said. “I know I shouldn’t, but I have. It’s haunted me my entire life. Not that I could’ve done anything to stop the time she suffered. She suffered so much. But what was so thrilling about seeing the play was that I’d forgotten that was what caused me to write it. I’ve seen this production since then. They do this play often. But something in the way this incredible production came about just went to the root of that decision.”
The student cast of In the Red and Brown Water, which runs at the Josephine Louis Theater through October 29, also attended the talk Friday.
“It was a total shock when he came backstage to talk to us, but he gave us all hugs, and he said how much he enjoyed it,” said Lena Dudley, a Theatre junior, who played the role of Shun in the play.
Ziare Paul-Emile, a Theatre junior who played the part of Nia, said she was thrilled to meet him backstage, but was also moved by his words. “It was wonderful to hear him speak about his process, and his inspiration, and it was just a delightful circle,” she said.
“It’s a really powerful play, but also symbolic to have that many students of color on this stage at Northwestern at this moment is a powerful statement,” said E. Patrick Johnson, who founded the Black Arts Initiative and is the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern.
Black Arts International: Temporalities and Territories is sponsored by the Lambert Family Conference Gift, funded by the generous donation of Bill and Sheila Lambert.
– Cara Lockwood