PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tarell Alvin McCraney

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tarell Alvin McCraney Young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney won a lot of attention and a couple of awards when his play The Brothers Size played the Public Theater in early 2007.
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Tarell Alvin McCraney Photo by courtesy Vineyard Theatre

One of those awards was the inaugural Paula Vogel Playwriting Award from The Vineyard Theatre. Now McCraney is back with a new play and the Vineyard is its home. The subject of Wig Out! is as unusual as its title: "two competing drag houses, and the loves, loyalties, and dreams within each that draw their members together and apart." Tina Landau directs the play, which will later debut in London in a different production. McCraney talked to Playbill.com about this latest walk down the theatrical catwalk.

Playbill.com: How did the idea for your new play Wig Out! come about?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I was living in Chicago and I became over-interested in the ways that people who are marginalized set up a structure that is similar to that of the normalities around them, to the mainstream society. They create these nuclear families with a mother and father and children, etc.

Playbill.com: Now, there are two competing drag houses in the play, right?
TAM: There is one dominant house that I focus on.

Playbill.com: What is the competition between the two houses?
TAM: It's a tradition that one house calls out to the other house and throws a ball. And there's a category that exists for each person in the events that will go on at the ball. If you became a girl, do you look like a real girl? If you became a boy, do you look like a real boy? Will you stand on the catwalk in front of all of us and we can't tell your business, we can't tell that you're trans-gender, pre-op, like that. That's how they compete.

Playbill.com: I'm thinking this play will have some pretty considerable design elements. Is that right?
TAM: It does. It has some pretty beautiful design elements. And our designers have been very generous with their time and efforts. The lighting of the costumes, for one, and the set itself, which has completely transformed the theatre. Playbill.com: Did you write a lot of the design elements into the script? Were you very prescriptive?
TAM: Yeah. (Laughs) There's one stage direction that says, "This person must look fan-****ing-tastic. I don't know what that means, but do your best, girl." Literally, I wrote things like that for stage directions. And I'm not one to normally to write a lot of stage directions, but I felt for a show like this, I thought I had a duty to be as prescriptive as I possibly could.

Playbill.com: That left a lot of challenges for the costume designer, didn't it?
TAM: Toni-Leslie James, who is the costume designer, has been thrilled by the challenges. She said she read it and was excited and giddy. I thought, "Oh, OK." (Laughs) But literally, some of the stage directions say, "She comes in and she looks ****ing awesome." I wrote it in Drag Vernacular.

Playbill.com: Excuse my ignorance: What is "Drag Vernacular"?
TAM: I didn't really codify it. It's the language that is made up and constantly changing between people in the drag ball scene.

Playbill.com: How did you get hooked up with Tina Landau as your director?
TAM: Tina and I had worked together as actor and director back in Chicago, when I first graduated from undergrad. And I asked her to direct a reading of a play that the Public Theater was doing in "New Works Now!" I think we have a really great working relationship, so I asked her to direct that same play down at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. It got nominated for all these awards in Atlanta and I was like "Whoa!" When the Vineyard asked if I had any directors in mind, I said "Tina" and they were very happy about that.

Playbill.com: Now this play is going to play in London later.
TAM: Yes, it goes up at the Royal Court Theatre in November. That's a separate production.

Playbill.com: You also act. Was it ever your intention to act in this piece?
TAM: Not necessarily, but I would.

Playbill.com: You'd get to wear all those great costumes.
TAM: It's moreso that the roles themselves are so beautiful. It's a play about transgender people. It's not just about them dressing up. It's about their lives, what they need and love. That's interesting to me.