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.
Landau, who directed the premiere of McCraney’s Head of Passes at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in April, has known McCraney for almost a decade. Asked what she imagines the playwright might achieve in the future, she responded, “More of what he has already: greatness. By that I mean profound, lasting, meaningful works along with what is as, or perhaps more, important: the ability to touch, inspire and give back to those in the here and now. He is a gift-giver.”
Throughout his rise to prominence, McCraney has reinforced his ties to Miami, talking often of his plans to start a theater company and training program in South Florida, making sure that productions such as GableStage’s “action-movie” version of his pared-down Hamlet last January are given free performances for large student audiences.
That will happen again when Antony and Cleopatra, a $2 million coproduction of GableStage, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public Theater, plays Miami Beach’s Colony Theater Jan. 11-Feb. 9; adult audiences will see the play with its international cast on weekends, while students will be brought in for weekday performances.
GableStage artistic director Joseph Adler, who first met McCraney when the playwright was a New World high school student, underscores the writer’s sincere interest in making theater happen in Miami and connecting with young audiences.
“Even though he’s gone on to international acclaim, the fact that he wants to come back makes him unusual. And he hasn’t changed a bit. His humility, compassion and genuine concern for people are remarkable,” Adler said.
“When he interacts with young people, he speaks to them in a language they can understand . . . He’s an award-winning, established playwright who went to the same public schools and grew up in the same neighborhood. They know he cares. He’s a man who’s equally at home talking to the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a 10th grader.”
Sylvan Seidenman, McCraney’s former New World guidance counselor, and his wife, Sandy, have become McCraney’s godparents and a loyal support system that augments the playwright’s relationships with his father, grandmother, two brothers and his sister.
The Seidenmans keep the certificates and plaques signifying the playwright’s many awards in what they jokingly call the Tarell McCraney Wing at their home.
The most recent was the $150,000 inaugural Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize awarded earlier this month at Yale — and now, the MacArthur.
All those honors live at his godparents’ house because the globe-trotting McCraney still hasn’t found time to get his own place nor settled on where he wants to live, something else the MacArthur fellowship may enable.
The Seidenmans, who will be in the audience for a Nov. 7 performance of Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford-Upon-Avon, worry about McCraney’s hectic schedule and the bronchitis that seems to plague him from spending so much time on planes. But they, like Adler, find their godson unchanged.
“He still has that attitude of giving, almost to a fault. His heart is with Miami and making sure other young people see the arts as a way to help yourself and express yourself . . . to fill voids and give their lives so much enrichment,” Sandy Seidenman said.
McCraney has been frenetically productive this year, directing Hamlet at GableStage, seeing his Book of Job-inspired Head of Passes premiere at Steppenwolf in April, collaborating on the spirituals-infused American premiere of his Choir Boy at Manhattan Theatre Club in July, traveling to Haiti for Antony and Cleopatra research, and driving the deal that got the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Public and GableStage to link up for the first time.
Staying busy, he knows, is good; too busy, not so good.
“There are some things that have failed or not done well, but the work has been solid and growing, both artistically and in income,” he said. “Sometimes, it can’t get better because you’re not spending enough time. It’s like, ‘Guys, we’re rushing this.’ But putting things off became harder and harder.”
Once Antony and Cleopatra is up and running in England, McCraney plans to spend the long holiday period in Miami. On the horizon are a rewrite of Head of Passes, a possible trip to Cuba for research on a Public Theater-commissioned stage version of Reinaldo Arenas’ Old Rosa, and other backlogged projects, which should benefit from that MacArthur-funded, elusive luxury: time.
“Now I can help Joe [Adler] make the groundswell for Antony and Cleopatra better and easier,” he said. “The fellowship came at a perfect time. Now I don’t have to slam everything into my time off. All my projects are made less frantic.”