Tarell Alvin McCraney

Theatre of Be Longing

By: Sybil Lewis

Speaking on the opening night of the 2017 Othering and Belonging Conference, playwright and actor Tarell Alvin McCraney provided a nuanced look at the role of the artist in truth-telling and the importance of developing a “theatre of belonging” in sharing narratives.

McCraney is best known for his acclaimed trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays and his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which became the basis for the Academy Award-winning film, Moonlight. McCraney’s work is closely connected to his personal experiences. He began his keynote with an anecdote from childhood when three peers chased him while throwing rocks, which is the basis of an excerpt from his play Without/Sin about the love between two young men, Gideon and Reynaldo, who grew up together in a tough urban neighborhood.

The boys closed in on him but they stopped chucking rocks. Are they crazy? Porque no? Why not. ‘No Reynaldo, no, look where you are, where you stand, you are near the cars. The cars have precious glass made from sand. They won’t break the replaceable glass. Reynaldo’s heart broke – I am less than glass? Sand burned in the fire is greater than me? No further will I run then. I will stay and take my lesson like a man. For if now I die, at least I can become as precious as sand

Reflecting on this excerpt of the play , McCraney realized that he had actually failed to do what novelist and playwright, James Baldwin charged artists to do: tell the whole truth. His own hurt as a victim of bullying led him to paint the boys as pure villains, which in truth “the violence they visited upon me was already all around me and in them.”

“For example, who taught them that my Black life mattered less than the glass on those cars?” McCraney said. “Isn’t it true that [the bully] learned the misogyny and for him not to feel like the girl he let his homophobia blossom. Homophobia is just misogyny aimed at men and that is what [the bully] was feeling.”

Theatre of Be Longing, a Keynote Address by Tarell Alvin McCraney

McCraney, who is now chair of the Department of Playwriting at Yale School of Drama, challenges his students to fully engage with their audiences and to fulfill the artist’s ultimate purpose of revealing all parts of the truths, included those that appear in conflict to their own.

In addition to seeking to incorporate the experiences of those who Othered him, McCraney contends with questions of how to embody a “theater of belonging” in his own work. McCraney explained that most theatres began with strong notions of community theatre, but now the concept is often lost within the oftentimes elite arts profession wherein people are divided between those who can afford to attend and those who can’t, and therefore do not.

“Queer brown faces that are often at the forefront of culture making,” McCraney said. “[But] they have to not only be allowed to perform, but to produce by them and for them. Instead we write well-structured dramas seeped in Western performance and hope to God some student says our work saved their lives.”

But plays nor art of any kind actually save lives, he continued, and “it is in the discourse caused by the collective imagining of people of beauty and gore supreme that shifts lives to action. And that is when culture is belonging.”

Theatre of belonging, he said, works at the grassroots level with small community-led efforts where the talent of the community is actively engaged and celebrated. The artist should be deeply afraid as the purpose is to unearth truths and to encourage discussion within the community, i.e. the audience. McCraney described a defining moment about ten years ago when Marin Theatre took his play In the Red and Brown Water to the Marin Projects. The play is about a woman in the projects who desperately wants to become pregnant. McCraney was terrified of how the play would be received and how the audience would respond to the queer overtones. What happened, however, strongly highlighted what community theatre should be: In the audience there was a community member who was the embodiment of one of the characters in the play. Her candid reactions to scenes often mirrored the character’s reactions – “we were belonging in that moment,” McCraney said.

“It has been damn near ten years since that experience and I’m wondering where the road turned. I have been chasing that belonging knowing that I cannot create it, I must return to it. By first returning to my community,” McCraney concluded.

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