McCraney Gives Miami Voices Their Close-Up

By Meredith Camel

McCraney Gives Miami Voices Their Close-Up

By Meredith Camel
A professor of theatre and civic engagement and playwright whose work inspired the film Moonlight, Tarell Alvin McCraney nurtures Miami’s homegrown artistic talent.

Identity, intimacy, and trust are topics Tarell Alvin McCraney was wrestling with in the summer of 2003, when he wrote In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the gritty but tender coming-of-age story about a bullied gay black boy in the projects—his story.

A recent graduate of DePaul University in Chicago at the time, McCraney was headed to grad school at Yale when he got the news his mother had died from AIDS. The piece was an outlet to “figure out my life now that I was missing the one person who could tell me who I was, beyond my memory,” he recalls.

Subsequent works—The Brother/Sister Plays, Head of Passes, Choir Boy, and Wig Out!—as well as two years in London as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s International Playwright in Residence catapulted McCraney into the theatrical limelight, but lately the MacArthur Fellow is captivating moviegoers with Moonlight, the film adaptation of his never-produced autobiographical script. A mutual connection forwarded the script a few years ago to filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who grew up three blocks from McCraney and whose mother also battled crack cocaine addiction, though the two had never previously met. Moonlight captures Jenkins’ and McCraney’s collective experience of survival in a reality that left them bruised yet aching to make sense of it through art.

Moonlight is, as described by The New York Times critic A.O. Scott, “so richly evocative of South Florida that it raises the humidity in the theatre.” It places its lens on Liberty City in a way few films have ever done, and for McCraney, that exposure is key to preserving the neighborhood and nourishing the voices that emerge from it. Cultivating Miami’s “homegrown talent” is the reason he foregoes life in New York, L.A., London, or Chicago, choosing instead to come back home.

“If I leave, who’s gonna make sure somebody’s picking up the 305?” he says, a nod to the Miami area code.

A faculty member in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences since 2015, McCraney also teaches theatre at Liberty City’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center (AHCAC), his childhood safe haven. He is passionate about preventing the “brain drain” that occurs when talented students think they have to leave Miami to pursue a career in the arts.

Acclaimed playwright and UM professor Tarell Alvin McCraney delivers a ’Cane Talk about the uniqueness of Miami's mode of storytelling and the importance of nurturing art that belongs to the city and its people.

This summer, McCraney led the first of a three-year Summer Artistic Leadership Program at the AHCAC, a partnership between the center, the University of Miami, Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs, and Arts for Learning. He guided 14 young black women, ages 13 to 17, as they wrote and performed an adaptation of the Greek tragedy Antigone. Over the next two summers, the group will craft and perform original works.

“Black women understand, perhaps more than anyone, what it means to try to make their way in a place that is constantly saying ‘no way,’” McCraney says. “That’s what this program is about—getting young citizens to feel they have a voice.”

And nurturing young voices through the arts, McCraney says, awakens imagination and empathy. He blames many of the world’s problems today on a lack of empathy, which feeds entitlement. The ability to recognize that “my privilege is actually based on the humiliation and oppression of the people around me,” he says, is tied into the arts.

“It goes right back to empathy,” he continues. “If you have people who can say, ‘I was raised, nurtured, and educated by my community,’ then they will do better by the community.”