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20 Questions With … Tarell Alvin McCraney

American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney – who’s widely touted as ‘one to watch’, with his debut play, The Brothers Size, opening at the Young Vic this week – talks about Yoruba myth, his debt to Peter Brook & coming from a family of preachers.

By • West End


After obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, Tarell Alvin McCraney entered the Yale School of Drama playwriting programme, which he completed this past May, winning the Cole Porter Playwriting Award upon graduation.

His play The Brothers Size started as a workshop at Yale and was later picked up by New York’s Public Theater. It’s now receiving its European premiere at Young Vic, whose artistic director David Lan said the theatre had “struck gold” by obtaining rights for the London run. The Young Vic has also optioned McCraney’s subsequent two plays in his Brother/Sister trilogy: In the Red and Brown Water, and Marcus; and the Secret of Sweet.

McCraney’s other plays to date include: The Breach, a play about Hurricane Katrina and staged in New Orleans this summer to mark the second anniversary of the tragedy; Run Mourner, Run, adapted from Randall Kenan's short story; Without/Sin and Wig Out!.

Transplanting a Yoruba myth into the soil of Louisiana, The Brothers Size tells the story of two brothers: Ogun owns an auto-repair shop, Oshooshi has just left prison and is already back on the wrong track. Bijan Shebani directs the co-production with the Actors Touring Company.


Date & place of birth
Born 17 October 19809 in Miami, Florida in a spot called Liberty City.

Lives now in
Out of my luggage in whatever hotel the theatre I am working for puts me up.

What made you want to become a playwright?
I am from a family full of teachers, preachers and athletes. I wanted to write because there were not enough roles for African-Americans. I mean, there were some but not enough.

If you hadn’t become a playwright, what might you have done professionally?
Realistically, I would have been a dancer, but some days when the pay is little and the taxes high I think, damn I should have been a lawyer.

First big break
I think this might be it. Maybe. Or maybe the next thing. I will get back to you surely.

Career highlights to date
Once I got to perform a scene with Ruby Dee, the original Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun. That was incredible. I also was August Wilson’s assistant while he worked on his last play, Radio Golf. And finally, working on a play called Wig Out at Sundance with a group of incredible actors … such a great time.

Favourite directors
Peter Brook and Tina Landau (of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater). The actors always seem to be so powerful in their work - as if all the story needs are these dedicated performers to make it all happen.

What’s your connection with Peter Brook?
I auditioned for an English version of a play called Le Costume that Mr Brook and his associate Marie-Helene Etienne were putting together in Chicago. After a strange audition for me, they asked me to do the role. I was still in undergraduate college at the time and it was exciting. Since then, they have kept up with me, encouraged my work and sent it to places with their stamp of approval, and we continue to work together. The last time I did a workshop of a new play with them was in April of 2006.

What other playwrights do you most admire?
Lorca, August Wilson, Marcus Gardley and Amy Herzog (classmates of mine), Robert O’Hara … so many more.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed? And the first?
Nacho Duato’s Castrati performed by the Nacional compania de Danza of Spain. It was an amazingly beautiful and heart-racing piece set in classical times using modern ballet and extremely athletic partnering. The dancing was fierce. The costumes were incredible. I was in awe. First thing I ever saw … My grandfather preaching the story of Lazarus rising from the grave. One of the best theatrical moments in my life.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“It’s not about you.”

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would love to be Desmond Richardson, artistic director of Complexions Dance for a day. To be able to dance and move with that much power. Just for a day.

Favourite books
A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan, Reinaldo Arenas: The Pentagonia by Francisco Soto, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry by Essex Hemphill, and Ecclesiastes from The Bible.

Favourite music on your iPod
Toto Bassainthe, Kanye West and Common.

Favourite website
The site for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York.

What inspired you to write The Brothers Size?
I read a song/poem about Ogun. It said something like, “Oshoosi, Ogun’s brother, wonders and Ogun made tools to find him.”

In writing a play set in Louisiana, why were you influenced by west African Yoruba mythology?
The west African mythology is alive and present in various retentions across the southern portion of America, in the north amongst African-Americans, and in the Caribbean. The retentions and celebration of the Orisha and these old traditions have merged into culture, music, food in the African-American cosmology. One of the most vivid but not singular examples of this is how the slaves of Cuba merged Catholicism with deity worship, worship of Yoruba Orisha, and formed Santeria. The tradition of keeping those stories alive and using them to tell stories about African-Americans in the most urban and quotidian way is nothing new … we call it sampling in Hip-Hop. So I was interested in keeping that tradition in the theatre. Merging the old with the new. And listening to the discourse it created in the space.

You have two other plays optioned by the Young Vic. What can you tell us about them?
The three plays under option at the Young Vic are The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, and Marcus; and the Secret of Sweet. They are part of the same trilogy called The Brother/Sister Plays. The Young Vic has been really kind in wanting to build a relationship with my work. So we are jumping in together and seeing what we can make.

What are your other future plans?
I plan to work hard and try new things and try to do old things in ways that only I can do them. Make the path by walking.

- Tarell Alvin McCraney was interviewed by Tom Atkins


The Brothers Size receives its European premiere on 13 November 2007 (previews from 9 November) at the Young Vic, where its limited season continues until 8 December.


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