American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known outside the theatre world for the 2016 movie Moonlight - which won him and filmmaker Barry Jenkins an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay (and, after a brief moment where La La Land seemed to have won, best picture too).
Choir Boy, McCraney’s 2012 drama-with-hymns that opens this week at Toronto’s Canadian Stage (in co-production with the Arts Club in Vancouver), also tells a coming-of-age story about growing up Black and queer, but in a different environment.
It centres on Pharus, a scholarship student who leads the gospel choir at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys; this educational institution devoted to grooming “strong, ethical Black men” makes it hard for him to accept his sexuality.
As chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama since in 2017, McCraney has played a more positive educational role in grooming the next generation of theatre artists and encouraging them to find their own authentic voices. The 42-year-old playwright, whose other major works include The Brother/Sister Plays, talked to theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck over the phone.
I was wondering how much you view Choir Boy as a companion piece to Moonlight given the similar coming-of-age themes about being gay and Black and immersed in a particular type of masculine world.
I actually thought that Choir Boy would be a piece that is interesting and beautiful, but would not need to be done again. A period piece. I thought we’d go: Wow, the time where that kind of toxic masculinity existed is over or nearing an end and things are sort of getting better. In fact, there was that slogan going around.
Right, it gets better.
Then cut to, you know, 2022 and there are states banning young folks from even identifying as gay or trans or bi or as queer. The words ‘queer theory’ are stricken from high-school learning and teaching. Here in Florida – where I’m from, where Choir Boy is set in my mind – that’s what’s happening. There’s a mandate saying that you cannot teach students about sexuality at a certain age. You can’t learn about Harvey Milk. They’ve recently banned Anna in the Tropics.
Really, Anna and the Tropics! (The Miami-Dade Public School board denied students the opportunity to see the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the gay Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, according to Miami New Drama artistic director Michel Hausmann.)
Yeah! So, Moonlight was one of those projects that I wrote a script for in 2003 – when I was 23 years old – and it sat around for a while as films can do. Then I finally found someone, Barry Jenkins, who could give it the life that it needed. And when it came out in 2016, I was like: Folks will see this and think, oh‚ that was coming-of-age story back then. But it’s wild because even then it was like a first for many reasons – racially, having to do with sexual identity, having to do with Miami. So anyway, when I think of Choir Boy and Moonlight, I think to myself: Wow, I did not expect them to be so relevant and yet here we are.
Choir Boy premiered at the Royal Court in London in 2012 and then it was on Broadway in 2018. As I understand it, you’ve since revisited the play. What made you want to rewrite parts for its recent production in Chicago at Steppenwolf?
Me rewriting a play is nothing new; I’ve been in TV and film so long, I’m used to it. Any time I’ve ever worked on a play with the production company and work in my home company, I’m gonna change something; I’m gonna make sure that the artists feel like this is something that only they can do every night
I did want to ask you about the Yale School of Drama. I think sometimes the theatre MFA industry in the United Sates has been derided, not unreasonably, because you have taken on a lot of debt to break into a low-paying industry. But that’s not the case at Yale School of Drama any more, right?
Well the tuition has been free for playwrights – and they’ve been stipended – since 2010.
Oh, so you didn’t have to go into debt when you went there?
No, I graduated in 2007, so I did have to go into debt. [Laughs.] But three years after I graduated from the program, the Yale School of Drama playwriting program became stipended thanks to [then department chair and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright] Paula Vogel. She was very adamant that students can not go into debt for all the reasons you said. You are then picking folks who can afford to be there rather than the people who are talented enough, who are interesting enough, who want to be there. Then, thankfully, just last year, the David Geffen Foundation gave $150-million so there is free tuition for every student in all the programs.
I find American playwriting has changed so much, got more exciting, in the last 10,15 years – and so many come out of the program that you run. LA Times critic Charles McNulty has written about this being a golden age of American playwriting right now. And as a subset of that, I would say, a real golden age in terms of Black American playwrights. So running the program that you do, what are the reasons why there’s so much good writing for the stage coming out of the States at the moment?
Who would have thought A Strange Loop would have been on Broadway, or Slave Play or Fat Ham at the Public right now? Folks are really pushing the boundaries. I stay kind of head down with my students’ work. I try to make sure that they aren’t all going toward New York or LA or Chicago because someone else told them or they think that that’s the path. I really want to know, if they are from Pittsburgh, why aren’t they telling stories in Pittsburgh. If they’re from Ottawa, why aren’t they telling stories in Ottawa?
Choir Boy runs at Canadian Stage in Toronto from Nov. 8 to 19. The production will then be at the Arts Club in Vancouver next season. This interview has been condensed and edited.