For Tarell Alvin McCraney, art isn’t a supplement or luxury—it’s essential. “Theatre is medicinal for people to understand themselves, understand the community, and understand and deal with the traumas of their lives,” the Oscar-winning playwright says during a press day for his play Choir Boy. The play, about a queer black student navigating his choir community at an elite prep school, premiered Off-Broadway in 2013, but a lot has changed for McCraney since then. He took home the 2016 Best Screenplay Academy Award for Moonlight, became the Chair of Yale School of Drama’s Playwriting department, and now makes his Broadway debut with Choir Boy, directed by Trip Cullman and currently playing at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
In addition to his own accomplishments, McCraney has also seen an increase in theatremakers asking “important and necessary” questions about identity politics. “It’s looking at the problems that come with being indoctrinated into our society and asking, ‘How are we not making room for others nor ourselves?’”
As the cultural and theatrical landscape has shifted, so has McCraney’s artistry. He’s not interested in the illusion of being open; he finds necessity in embracing his vulnerability, especially in rehearsals. McCraney thrives on staying fully engaged with the artists present in the room—it’s then that he can interrogate his own uncertainties and revise his script to better reflect the story’s truth.
Even when the play arrives onstage, McCraney acknowledges that the audience becomes a part of the conversation. “Audiences, like all collaborators, come with their own biases and predilections, and you do the best you can to engage and be open to it,” he says.
And McCraney encourages his audiences to engage right back. With his work centered on queer blackness, he’s aware that some audience members may leave the theatre with questions if they don’t fully relate to the specificity of the experience.
“Things become problematic when an audience member sees your personal work and feels removed from it because they only see it as your pain and don’t recognize it as their own,” he says. “Sometimes audience members don’t get everything, and that’s OK, because at least there’s an engagement. They may have to do a little work, but it’s the moments where you have to work that are important.”