By Chris Azzopardi | Q Syndicate
A chat with the gay playwright whose life story inspired “Moonlight”
“It was a lot,” Tarell Alvin McCraney said of his oddly coincidental evening recently, when the out playwright attended the premiere of “Moonlight” in Miami, the city where he grew up.
Family he hadn’t met before came out in droves; his brother showed up and longtime friends, too.
It also happened to be the birthday of “Kevin,” a childhood confidante from his youth who was the basis for an influential character in “Moonlight.”
“I’m like …” he started, grunting with frustration at an experience he calls “difficult” and “complicated.”
“I mean, it was a full moon,” McCraney said. “It was a year to the day that it started filming, it was my birthday weekend — and there was a storm, but then there were, like, clear skies.”
That day, as he watched the film adaptation of his semi-autobiographical stage piece, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” in a theater, just a quick jaunt from where he was raised, the intersections between reality and film were palpable.
So were his feelings. During the premiere in Miami, “a lot of me wanted to be like, ‘It’s happening, go to sleep,’” but in London, he said, “It was easy to tell the lineal space between reality and myth and fiction.”
McCraney wrote “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” in 2003, while experiencing “depression” and “sadness” as he grieved the loss of his mother, who died that summer.
Like the film’s protagonist, Chiron, whose life unfolds in three chapters, the playwright has always preferred expressing himself outside of conversation.
“I can talk ad nauseam about art, but ask me how I feel that day and I can barely say about five words,” he said, chuckling.
For McCraney, making his press rounds for “Moonlight” is a new, unnerving process.
“Normally people ask the same five questions about the play and you kind of go, ‘Thanks so much and it’s about this and come see it,’ but this is different,” he said.
McCraney wrote his first play at age 13. Later, he graduated from Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program, receiving the Cole Porter Playwriting Award upon graduation and in 2013, the playwright garnered the MacArthur “Genius” grant.
Though McCraney, now 36, has written several plays since his teenage years, including “The Brothers Size,” which earned him the 2009 New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” reflects his life most intimately and explores a question he has a better grasp of now: “Why wasn’t I brave enough to become like the men I knew in my life?”
Directed by Barry Jenkins, who also grew up in Miami’s Liberty City just blocks away from McCraney, “Moonlight” chronicles Chiron’s discovery of identity and sexuality through a multi-tiered, age-shifting narrative.
The three chapters unfold as such: “I: Little,” when we meet small, shy Chiron, who lives with his drug-addicted mother and essentially becomes the adopted son of a compassionate crack dealer, Juan. Then “II: Chiron,” when he first sexually engages with his friend, Kevin; and “III: Black,” which ends with grown Chiron, hardened and on the same path as Juan, though still sexually conflicted.
“The original piece, was and is a kind of meditation on what my life could be, less about what my life actually is,” McCraney said, unleashing a hearty laugh.
“Clearly, I was trying to do some sort of inner excavation. But for me, it’s about watching how identity plays out and looking at chaotic portions of my childhood and trying to figure out when there were other alternatives and what did those alternatives look like.”
Few existed for young McCraney, who snuck ballet lessons behind his father’s back and admitted he would’ve felt ashamed to tell this story during his adolescence.
“I think, for me, if there is a someone like me out there …” he said, trailing off, “I feel like this piece talks so much about an American phenomenon of hyper-masculinity that exists in so many forms.”
Because he was “not that brave,” McCraney admires the brazen nature of child actors Alex R. Hibbert (the first chapter’s “Little”) and Jaden Piner (the first chapter’s Kevin), whom he calls “my heroes.”
“Kids are already so much more exposed and integrated than I was in terms of just understanding the voices of the world,” he said. “It’s important for me to see that these young people are finding avenues and platforms in which to speak their truth, not just about their own sexual identity, but that they want a diverse community and that their community is full of the voices that sometimes get siloed and stifled.”
The voice of the black, gay man is finally being heard in “Moonlight,” as demonstrated by its initial rollout at the end of October, when the film banked an impressive $414,740 on just four screens in New York and Los Angeles.
“People are walking away feeling like they’ve met somebody,” McCraney said. “I think that’s what the film does. Barry [the director] was really adamant about making sure that you lived with Chiron and all of his iterations in a way that you probably might not have if this film was made by somebody else.
“It preserves all the things that are important to me,” he said.
As for the film’s success — both commercially and as a projected Oscar contender — it’s not something he or Jenkins expected.
“I guess I wasn’t really thinking, ‘Oh, we’re gonna be talking about it at film screenings across the world,’” McCraney said. “I just thought, ‘We’re telling a really good story, so I’m into it and you’re into it and we’re into it in the same way, so let’s tell it.’”