In 2017, just a few weeks after The Miami Times named him part of a new generation that shares Martin Luther King’s dream, Tarell McCraney gave a heartfelt speech at the Academy Awards. Standing with director, collaborator and fellow Miamian Barry Jenkins, he accepted the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “Moonlight,” which also won best picture.
“This goes out to all those Black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming [kids] who don’t see themselves,” McCraney said onstage with Jenkins at his side. “This is for you.”
“Moonlight” is based on a play McCraney wrote called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” which was inspired by his own experiences as a child. He grew up in Liberty City as a poor, gay Black boy whose mother struggled with drug addiction and eventually died of HIV/AIDS. He was bullied by the kids in his neighborhood but found a community and peace in the theater world. He went to high school at Miami’s New World School of the Arts and continued on to DePaul University in Chicago.
He’s now the chair of and playwriting professor for Yale’s School of Drama, and the Yale Repertory Theatre playwright-in-residence. He is also a member of the D-Projects Theater Company, which was founded by Teo Castellanos, McCraney’s longtime teacher and collaborator.
Another of McCraney’s plays, “Choir Boy,” has similar themes of sexuality, masculinity and race to “Moonlight.” The work, which was written in 2012, hit the boards at Toronto’s Canadian Stage in November 2022 with some changes to the original 2012 version.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, McCraney said he thought “Choir Boy” and “Moonlight” are just as poignant today as they were in the past. He referenced the targeting of the LGBTQ+ community, such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which limits instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
“When ‘Moonlight’ came out in 2016, I was like, folks will see this and think, oh‚ that was a coming-of-age story back then,” McCraney told the newspaper. “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.”
In addition to theater and film, McCraney has added a TV series to his growing list of projects. “David Makes Man” premiered in 2019 and has had two seasons. Its protagonist is a young Black boy who lives in poverty in South Florida but attends a privileged school for gifted children. The show’s first season follows David’s struggle to switch between his poverty-stricken home in the projects and his exclusive magnet school. In the second season, he reaches adulthood and continues to wrestle with the balance.
That exploration of trauma and the reactions one has to it, from despair to resilience, is evergreen in McCraney’s work.
“That’s what all great art should do,” he said on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2021. (It should) “remind us that there’s something larger than ourselves and that there is resilience and that there are different ways in which we engage it, but that we are more alike in our engagement than different.”
Natalie La Roche Pietri Miami Times Contributor | This profile is a collaboration between The Miami Times and the Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media at Florida International University.