Tarell Alvin McCraney, a Miami playwright now in London directing his South Florida-bound, set-in-Haiti adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Company, on Wednesday was named one of 24 recipients of the 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, a rich prize popularly known as the “Genius Grant.”
His distinctive theatrical voice, a blending of classical influences, spirituality and raw yet poetically infused street language, has won his work productions at major theaters all over the United States, British theaters including the Royal Shakespeare Company and, in South Florida, at GableStage.
Awarded in quarterly installments over a five-year period, the no-strings grants rose from $500,000 to $625,000 for the 2013 fellows.
For the secretively selected artists, writers, scientists and others, the support allows people who meet the MacArthur Foundation’s criteria — exceptional creativity, the promise of important advances based on a significant track record, the potential for more creative work — to tackle their careers and projects in different ways.
Almost 900 fellows have benefited from MacArthur funding since the program began in 1981. One of McCraney’s fellow recipients is New York-based writer Karen Russell, a Coral Gables High School graduate whose set-in-Florida debut novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.
For McCraney, 32 , the first South Florida-based winner since novelist Edwidge Danticat in 2009, the fellowship will buy the luxury of time.
“This will allow me to slow down, let this sink in and just make cooler-headed decisions,” the perpetually on-the-road McCraney said. “Now it’s time to look at the long view of my work and career. In order to continue to support oneself, you have to become a shark and eat every opportunity. . . . I had tried to schedule a huge chunk of time to write for television to get a regular paycheck.”
But thanks to the MacArthur Fellowship, TV can wait and theater won’t lose another playwright to Hollywood, at least not yet.
Describing his work and style, the foundation cites him as a playwright who explores “the rich diversity of the African American experience in works that imbue the lives of ordinary people with epic significance. Complementing his poetic, intimate language with a musical sensibility and rhythmic, often ritualistic movement, McCraney transforms intentionally minimalist stages into worlds marked by metaphor and imagery.”
McCraney was the 8-month-old firstborn of a teen mom when the MacArthur Foundation handed out its first fellowships, and the odds that he overcame to become an internationally acclaimed playwright have been well chronicled.
Growing up in South Miami and Liberty City, he became a surrogate parent to his three younger siblings as their mother battled drug addiction and the AIDS that would take her life not long after McCraney’s graduation from DePaul University.
As a gay black youth, he was tormented by neighborhood kids, but found an artistic home in a theater program run by his first mentor, D-Projects founder Teo Castellanos, and in the high school at Miami’s New World School of the Arts.
His star began rising during his college days in Chicago, where he worked with the likes of legendary British director Peter Brook and director-playwright Tina Landau. While he was in the prestigious playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama, McCraney wrote the Brother/Sister Plays trilogy that would make him famous: In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet.