But long before McCraney’s work was the foundation for one of the most acclaimed films of 2016, his name was gold to the people at the Marin Theatre Company. McCraney’s acclaimed The Brother Sister Plays trilogy debuted at three Bay Area theaters in 2010, with his In the Red and Brown Water opening at MTC as part of an unprecedented three-theater collaboration with San Francisco’s Magic Theatre and American Conservatory Theatre. MTC’s production included a guerrilla-style performance in a courtyard of the residential developments in Marin City, a move that was in keeping with McCraney’s history of staging guerrilla theater in the Liberty City housing projects in Miami where he grew up.
Five years later, MTC hosted the Bay Area premiere of McCraney’s play Choir Boy, a heartbreaking coming-of-age drama set amid the choir of a prestigious prep school for young African-American men. The play drew standing ovations and rave reviews for being an “emotionally devastating yet ultimately life affirming ‘play with music.’”
“He’s a dear artist and we’re very lucky to have had him be a part of our family here,” says MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis of McCraney. “He’s been incredibly generous to our company.”
McCraney’s ties to Minadakis and MTC run deep.
McCraney’s agent first sent Minadakis The Brothers Size – another of the The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy – while he was the artistic director of Actor's Express Theatre Company in Atlanta and while McCraney was still a student at Yale School of Drama. By the time Minadakis came to MTC to work alongside his friend Ryan Rilette, then the producing director for MTC, “I knew Tarell’s work well and was a big fan,” so doing The Brother/Sister Plays was a great opportunity. “From there, we just became more and more enamored of his work – he’s just an amazing talent.”
In 2010, Rilette, who got to know McCraney while he was still at Yale and directed In the Red and Brown Water at MTC, told the San Jose Mercury News that he remembered thinking back then, “how could this kid be so young and write this well? He’s a young-looking guy but he definitely has an old soul. He writes in a lyrical language that is vulgar and profane, but at the same time sacred.”
Those similarities, and MTC’s well-established ties to the community in Marin City, got Minadakis thinking. Before long, they decided to put on a production of the play – no lights, no set and no props – in the courtyard between two of the residential buildings just prior to its debut on the MTC stage. Struck by the move, McCraney himself flew in from London, where he was serving as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s International Playwright in Residence, to catch the production in person.
“Tarell was just so excited to see it that way,” Minadakis says. “And it was such a great way to really get to know him that weekend, and the community really appreciated the work that went into making such a unique experience happen.”
“And I watched as the play and the audience began to engage,” he added. “How we had to hold for laughter, for audience members speaking to the performance, for the wind. It was incredible. I never forgot that. And don't think I will.”
When McCraney was wrapping up work on the The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, “everybody was so taken with his unique vision and wanted to know what his next piece would be, and everybody had heard that he had a script that wasn’t finished but was very autobiographical,” Minadakis says.
That script turned out to be In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a drama school project that had languished. Director Barry Jenkins used McCraney's play as the basis for Moonlight, which chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
Minadakis says he was struck by the fact that one of the first things McCraney ever wrote “is the one that has really taken him into an entirely new medium of film and has been seen so incredibly well. He just has such unbelievable writing and an incredible sense of rhythm and what has struck many people is how quiet it is and how he leaves such space between his words.”
“That physical space between the words and the silences has translated so well to Barry Jenkins’ film and the visual language that’s in the piece,” Minadakis adds.
McCraney and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins grew up in the projects in Miami, and the film’s screenplay, written by Jenkins but very much based on McCraney’s play, is filled with autobiographical anecdotes from both of their lives.
“There is not a single scene in this movie with that character that didn’t happen to either myself or Tarell growing up,” Jenkins said in a post-screening Q&A at the Cinearts Sequoia Theatre in Mill Valley during MVFF39 in October 2016. “Both of our mothers went through this addiction to crack cocaine. It’s so dark that it had to be rooted in truth. This is very much a shared biography between me and Tarell, but mostly Tarell.”
Moonlight garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director for Jenkins and Best Adapted Screenplay for both Jenkins and McCraney. The 89th Academy Awards will be held Feb. 26 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles with host Jimmy Kimmel. ABC will air the awards show.