Though he's getting better known for a trilogy of plays set in a fictional Louisiana bayou town, Tarell Alvin McCraney feels ever further from having a home of his own. That's one price you pay when you're among the English-speaking world's hottest playwrights.
McCraney is from somewhere, of course; he grew up in a Miami housing project. And setting is key to acclaimed plays like Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet. The lyrical and funny coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old boy's struggle to forge his identity, sexual and otherwise, premieres locally at City Theatre on Jan. 22.
But these days, Miami is just a mailing address. At 30, McCraney says, he's "homeless": constantly shuttling between borrowed flats in London, New York and elsewhere, writing (and rewriting) furiously, and watching his production credits grow.
"It's all very exciting and very stressful at the same time," he says by phone from New York, where he's workshopping a new play. "It's been important to focus on the work and focus on what stories we're trying to tell."
McCraney's rise was swift. His 2007 play The Brothers Size premiered when he was still a grad student, at the Yale School of Drama (where he served as an assistant to August Wilson). The engrossing three-character play went on to New York's legendary Public Theater and international stagings, including one at London's Young Vic. McCraney was also named International Writer in Residence at London's Royal Shakespeare Company.
And that was all before November 2008, when McCraney arrived in Pittsburgh to help prepare Brothers Size for City's stage -- even as another McCraney play, Wig Out!, was slated to open at London's Royal Court.
In the two years since, McCraney has only gotten hotter. In 2009, his Brother/Sister trilogy, which includes both Size and Marcus, premiered as a single three-play production, including a critically acclaimed run at the Public. New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that McCraney "writes with a passion and urgency that can't be faked and in a style that makes artifice feel like instinct." The trilogy went on to such firsts as 2010's three-theater San Francisco premiere. And last April, McCraney was made the 43rd ensemble member of Chicago's storied Steppenwolf Theater -- an honor shared with such luminaries as Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts.
"I think that Tarrell is without a doubt one of the most original and exciting voices writing for the American theater today," says City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden. "He absolutely creates his own world, and it's probably one you haven't been to before."
Brigden says the "extraordinary" audience response to City's Size helped convince her to grab Marcus, too.
For McCraney, the feeling is mutual. He even frames his relationship with companies like City in domestic terms. "In order to survive, you've got to find a sort of home," he says. "If the institution itself feels like you can be a part of it in some way, then it's a place where you can take root and have the freedom to actually do the work you want to do."
Like Steppenwolf and New York's Public, City feels like a home. "They just go, 'Can we do this play?' And I'm sorta like, 'Yeah, sure. I like the work you do,'" says McCraney.
Fans of City's Brothers Size will be glad to know director Robert O'Hara is returning. The frequent McCraney collaborator also directed the world premiere of Marcus, at Princeton's McCarter Theatre.
Marcus is lyrical and ripe with humor, and it's set mostly among teen-agers, in the same Louisiana town as Size and trilogy-opener In the Red and Brown Water. Marcus (played by Carnegie Mellon grad Larry Powell) is the son of Elegba, the now-deceased "trickster" from Brothers Size. The cast also includes Starla Benford, Jocelyn Bioh, Maurice McCrae, Jaime Lincoln Smith and Bria Walker.
O'Hara locates Marcus not on a map, but in a country built from McCraney's words. "It feels like Midsummer Night's Dream on the bayou," says O'Hara. Indeed, much of the play involves Marcus' dreams -- including visions of characters who provide advice or instruction.
The play depicts Marcus trying to figure himself out, even as others eagerly label him "sweet" -- slang for "gay." For Marcus, "home" is a place he knows all too well: one where nobody lets him learn who he is for himself.
As McCraney says, "Everybody has that moment where society says, 'This is who we think you are.' Then you say to society either, 'Sure, yeah, I will accept the identification you've given me.' Or you say, 'Actually, no, this is a little different. I can't subscribe to that.'"
Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet Sat., Jan. 22-Feb. 13. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. $30-60. 412-421-2489 or www.CityTheatreCompany.org
- Tarell Alvin McCraney