It might seem presumptuous for a playwright barely in his 30s to dare a radical edit on a major work by Shakespeare. But Tarell Alvin McCraney isn't your average young playwright. In the nearly seven years since he graduated from the Yale School of Drama, McCraney, 33, has won just about every honor a theatrical newcomer can get.
He was the first recipient of the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award and also received London's Evening Standard Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright, the Steinberg Playwright Award, the Whiting Writers' Award and the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award. Last year, he received a MacArthur Genius Grant and the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for Drama.
McCraney was just settling into the honor of being the international playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company when its then artistic director, Michael Boyd, asked him to do a shorter version of Antony and Cleopatra that could be used in schools. McCraney accepted the assignment, with one condition: He wanted to do the production in conjunction with Miami's GableStage theatre and New York's The Public Theater, where it opened March 5.
He chose GableStage because he wanted to give back to the city where he grew up and where he attended the prestigious New World School of the Arts. He chose the Public because it gave him his first professional production when it presented The Brothers Size, the first in a trilogy of plays that mixes African folktales, Greek myths and contemporary street culture to tell the multigenerational story of a community in the Louisiana Bayou. "From the first moment I read The Brothers Size, I was blown away by Tarell's writing," said Mandy Hackett, the Public's associate artistic director. "He has an explosive power and sensitivity in his writing — a unique combination that crackles and ignites his stories. Seeing him bring his singular vision to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is exciting."
McCraney, who also directs this adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra, has relocated the setting from first century Egypt to 18th–century Haiti, just before slaves overthrew their French masters to create the first black-ruled country in the New World.
"The play is a hybrid in being both a tragedy and a history," McCraney explained. "So the best thing to do was to put it in a more passionate time, a time of burgeoning worlds, when empires existed by crossing the sea and power plays were made by contract and by assassination."
In his retelling of this tale of romantic and colonial conquest, the Egyptian queen has become a Creole princess played by actress Joaquina Kalukango, while the Roman general who falls for her and challenges the empire is now a French military officer, played by Jonathan Cake.
In keeping with the colonial Caribbean theme, interludes of calypso music and suggestions of voodoo magic enter the story. McCraney has also shortened some speeches and rearranged a few scenes, trimming about an hour from the play's normal running time.
Still, the words remain largely Shakespeare's. McCraney didn't see his first professional production of Shakespeare until he was 20 — a production of Hamlet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater — but he'd studied the plays in school and has an abiding respect for the Bard. "As a writer," he said with a modest laugh, "I didn't feel comfortable rewriting much of Shakespeare's work."