Special to South Florida Times
Tarell Alvin McCraney acknowledges that growing up poor in Miami’s inner city didn’t make the road to success easy, but as the International Writer for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, it would be fair to say he’s arrived at the right destination.
McCraney will host a two-part event this Friday: a VIP Reception and Staged Reading Performance at the New World School of the Arts, his alma-mater.
Proceeds will go towards replacing a special fund that NWSA lost due to budget cuts that helped students pay for airline tickets, hotel accommodation, transportation and any other costs associated with going on auditions.
“The reason I’m doing this is because I love trying to find creative ways we can use our resources to better engage our young people,” McCraney said. “The fund surely helped me so maybe we can help someone else. I will always honor my community and try to change it for the better.”
McCraney, the eldest of four siblings, was born to a 17-year-old mother from Overtown and a 19-year-old father from Liberty City. Childhood, he recalls, was a turbulent time. Besides growing up in poverty in an unstable family, he was beaten, he said in an interview with South Florida Times, from age 8-14 by one of his mother’s former boyfriends. He also watched his mother deteriorate from a drug addiction.
“We moved around so much because we were poor and lived where mom could pay the rent. She lost her mother and father within the same year and had an abusive boyfriend who beat her and me. After that, she really declined and lost control,” he said.
And if that weren’t tough enough, he had to cope with abuse from other kids as a gay black male, even though he did not flaunt his sexuality.
“I got beat up a lot, especially at [Charles R.] Drew [Middle School]. I would get beat up so much I had panic attacks. To them I was clearly gay and I didn’t really have a lot of friends,” he recalled.
But that changed when he found his soul mate: the arts.
“I didn’t have supporters that told me it would be okay or have homeboys that had my back. I didn’t find that until I was in the arts. There I found a community that said, ‘Look I don’t care what you are. Just do what you’ve got to do’,’ he said.
When McCraney entered high school, he said, guidance counselors tried to keep him engaged in programs because his mom was in rehab. He was recruited for Village Improv Troupe, a group that spread the message of drug prevention through theater.
One day his troupe had to perform at a rehab center where his mother had been treated. After seeing the way the women related to the piece they performed about the struggles of addicts’ children, McCraney realized his calling.
“I just remember all of those women being so alarmed and upset about what we were doing because they’d never seen media and entertainment that reflected what their children were going through,” he said.
Realizing that classic theater was not inviting its less affluent, more urban audiences in, he decided to do something about it.
“I wondered what type of world we live in, what kind of work can we create if theater is only catering to a particular socioeconomic group and isn’t being used as the universal tool that it actually is,” he said. “It was at that moment that I actually decided I was going to work in theater because it was something I thought was needed and honorable. It was at that moment that I found the work and the desire.”
McCraney attended NWSA for theater and acting courses and received the Exemplary Artist Award and the Dean’s Award in Theater. Upon graduation, he went to the Goodman School of Drama at DePaul University in Chicago and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts and was accepted into Yale.
Things were looking up, but then came another blow. His mother died in 2003 after a 10-year battle with AIDS.
“My mother had been really sick and I’d been going back and forth to spend time with her. Before she died, she started having dementia and didn’t really know who I was. But when I told her I was going to Yale, she smiled really big and seemed really excited. It was like she knew what that meant and it meant a lot to her. It made me understand what I needed to do,” McCraney said.
The Yale University School of Drama for playwriting, which accepts only three students per year, accepted McCraney. Of the nine playwrights, he was the only black.
During his first year, he was personal assistant to acclaimed playwright August Wilson, who was writing Radio Golf, his final work before his death in 2005. Upon graduation, McCraney received the Cole Porter Prize for Excellence in Playwriting.
Those who know McCraney attest to his resilience and dedication to the greater good.
“Tarell has always been a very bright and very conscious young man. He was always aware that anything he did should have some impact in society. I’m very proud of him because he’s so personable and he’s such a talented person,” said Carla Hill, who, with husband Marlon, was picked by McCraney to be on a host committee planning the fundraiser.
“We’re excited that all of our friends can come and see what we already know, not only about Tarell McCraney, but New World School of the Arts and what wonderful artists they’ve produced in society,” said Hill, a music theater alumna from the NWSA’s founding class and one of his English teachers.
Marlon Hill, an attorney, agrees.
“We’ve always been big supporters of the school and this is a historic occasion for the entire community. For blacks, arts and culture is something that is part of our DNA, something that comes natural to us. We have a wealth of talent and we need to identify opportunities to support our kids whenever they exhibit a passion for the arts,” he said.
Patrice Bailey, Dean of Theatre at NWSA, has known McCraney since he was a sophomore, when she was his acting teacher.
“We’re really proud of Tarell, how he has progressed and been so successful and that he understands the importance of giving back to Miami and the New World School of the Arts,” Bailey said. “He’s a role model for the students.”
If You Go
WHAT: VIP Reception and Staged Reading Performance
WHEN: 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., respectively, Friday, Oct. 15
WHERE: New World School of the Arts, 8th Floor, 25 NE Second St. in downtown Miami
COST: VIP reception, $100; Staged reading performance, $30
CONTACT: For more information, call 305-237-3753 or log on to NWSA.mdc.edu.