Genius rides the waves by ‘Moonlight

Genius rides the waves by ‘Moonlight

Tarell McCraney, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

Tarell McCraney is in awe over buzz about Academy Award-nominated film

Tarell Alvin McCraney is riding a wave of success and acclaim in his professional life as the country, if not the world, celebrates a film based on his writing that is the talk of Miami.

McCraney is the Liberty City native who rose from poverty in the rough Liberty Square projects to the halls of Yale University, where he heads the theater department and is an artist in residence. In between those stops he wrote a play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” which is the basis for the much talked-about film, “Moonlight.” The movie swept the top awards earlier this year at the Golden Globes. It also has garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay for McCraney and director, Barry Jenkins.

The Academy Awards will be announced Sunday, Feb. 26. Despite the buzz and Hollywood excitement, in recent interviews McCraney seemed surprised by some of the attention.

He told the British website that he did not know he was eligible for an Oscar nomination. He thought the nod would go to Jenkins, his friend and fellow Miamian.

“When the nominations came out, I thought ‘Cool for Barry,’” McCraney recalls. “And then I opened this package, and it said ‘You’re nominated for an Academy Award.’” He laughs. “Pretty f***ing amazing! I had to sit down.”

He conceded that he didn’t see the script getting to the level of buzz that it has. He figured the script would come to the cinema as a smaller art film. He spoke about the transition during an interview with NBC News.

“I always knew that it would be better served as a film than a play, but I always thought that it would be something kind of small and independent,” McCraney said. “Let’s just say I could not have expected this to happen. But after Barry showed me one of his first cuts of the film, I did know that there was something beautiful about it. And I also knew Barry could bring to it something that I just could not. I love the art of collaborating, especially with someone as talented as Barry.”

His genius in part was born out of his hard-scrapple life in South Florida. McCraney uses those experiences to fuel his writing. It is laced throughout “Moonlight,” which is the tale of a young Black youth growing up in the projects in Liberty City. Those themes are familiar because they are parts of his life.

McCraney grew up in South Miami and Liberty City. As a poor, gay youth, he was tormented by neighborhood children, and he dealt with his mother’s struggles with drug addiction and an HIV/AIDS diagnosis that eventually would claim her life. His solace was theater. He found a home at New World School of the Arts, and DePaul University near Chicago, where he was a scholarship student. He also graduated from the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama. He recently was appointed as chair of the playwriting program.

The kid from the projects has received other awards, including the prestigious 2013 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

The foundation, which awards grants anonymously each year, citied McCraney for exploring “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.”