Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration

Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration. Sharrell D. Luckett, David Román, and Isaiah Matthew Wooden, eds. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2020; Pp. 252.

Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration, edited by Sharrell D. Luckett, David Román, and Isaiah Matthew Wooden, is a collection of adroitly composed essays committed “to engaging and interrogating the vastness of McCraney’s theatrical imagination, the singularity of his writerly voice, the incisiveness of his cultural insights and critiques, the creativity he displays through stylistic and formal qualities, and the unorthodoxies of his personal and professional trajectories” (3). There is no absence of scholarship about Tarell McCraney’s award-winning, imaginative plays, and screenplay, Moonlight; however, this is the first full-length project for McCraney scholars to examine, practitioners to reference, and pedagogues to engage. Well-researched and curated, this book serves as an excellent foundation for multi-faceted study through its series of essays, interviews, and commentaries. The volume is interdisciplinary in scope, focusing on one of the 21st century’s most significant and singular playwrights, highly regarded for his deeply entrenched cultural and symbolic writings and intergenerational mix of emotionally adept Black characters.

Opening with a career chronology, editor Sharrell D. Luckett underscores the trajectory of McCraney’s life as an artist and activist, a cornerstone to his “unprecedented success” (4). This simple yet effective addition coupled with editor Isaiah Wooden’s fascinating introduction helps contextualize McCraney’s lived experiences and rise to fame. The title of Wooden’s introduction, “Ogun Size Enters; or, An Introduction,” draws on McCraney’s dramaturgical practice of spoken stage directions. Like McCraney, Wooden’s introduction reemphasizes and reinvigorates the “investment in an idea of ‘theatre as community’” (9). He uses this section, then, to establish a communal foundation across critical scholarship, performance practice, and pedagogy by orienting readers to previously explored themes and topics. Subsequently, Wooden outlines the book’s overall structure, which he says they organized to “draw attention to some of the repetitions, revisions, resonances, and reverberations reflected in and across McCraney’s oeuvre” (12).

There are eleven essays in this collection, evenly distributed among the first two sections, followed by a series of interviews in the third. “Part 1: Space, Faith, and Touch,” features six informative, interesting critical essays. Collectively these essays contemplate the ways in which McCraney “queries and queers spatial, spiritual, and haptic matters” (12). While most of the authors explore these themes within Head of Passes, Wig Out!, Choir Boy, The Breach, and Moonlight, two also offer a greater understanding of McCraney’s dramaturgical approach by investigating the artist’s affinity for Miami and his treatment of time. Donette Francis’s “Juxtaposing Creoles: Miami in the Plays of Tarell Alvin McCraney” introduces the phrase “Black southern hemispheric epics,” a notion that suggests that McCraney’s topographical dramaturgy, despite locale, has a “Miami sensibility.” Francis “brings together the triangulation of the Black, southern, and hemispheric in order to grasp all the relevant geopolitical and cultural frames necessary to read place in McCraney’s oeuvre” (21). Equally as important is editor David Román’s essay “The Distant Present of Tarell Alvin McCraney,” where he revisits his 2014 American Quarterly article, which he explains “was written primarily as an introduction to McCraney and his dramaturgy” (53). For Román, McCraney’s use of time, specifically the notion of “the distant present,” forces us to consider when the contemporary moves from now to then,” through the character’s embodiment of “historical values of their communities while refining their own individual perspectives and points of view” (63).

The essays in “Part 2: Brothers, Sisters, and the Gods among Us” examine McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays (The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet) and dramaturgical devices. Perhaps the most enlightening among this strong set of essays are GerShun Avilez’s “Scenes of Vulnerability: Desire, Historical Secrecy, and Black Queer Experience in Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet” and Jeffrey McCune’s “One-Size Does Not Fit All: Voicing Masculinities in a Pursuit of ‘Freedom.’” Avilez attends to the ways in which McCraney explores the dilemmas of queer existence and establishes McCraney and his work, with particular attention on Marcus, as a part of a genealogy of Black queer writers. In doing so, he brilliantly divides the conversation into two, first, focusing on “social vulnerability” and secrecy as a way of connecting “Black individuals with same-sex desire(s)” (116); and, second, concluding with a discussion of how embodied encounters “interpenetrates vulnerability” and “define queer life” (116). In contrast, McCune’s article looks at the notion of masculinity in McCraney’s plays and the various ways in which he “teaches us to read Black masculine performance and space” (169). Introducing the phrase of canonical black masculine narrative, a notion that “configures masculinity as a singular production” (169), McCune examines McCraney’s use of spoken stage directions “to interrupt and reprimand conventional audience theatrical readings” (171).

Unlike earlier sections, which are more scholarly, “Part 3: Art, Creation, and Collaboration” deviates from the anthology’s established form, introducing readers to McCraney’s various collaborators. I found this section to be particularly useful for practitioners—and the field’s grasp of 21st century theater-making. Several of his recurrent collaborators in the last two decades, including Tina Landau, Robert O’Hare, and Teo Castellanos, just to name a few, present insights into McCraney’s developmental and performance process. This section is followed by “Tarell Alvin McCraney, in His Own Words,” where McCraney briefly engages in conversation with all three of the editors. This strikingly succinct interaction unearths the essence of McCraney by mostly avoiding questions of process and production and focusing on his mere existence. Like the Career Chronology, this section serves as a bookend to a selection of well-crafted essays that ushers in new, interesting aspects to explore.

Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration is an exceptional text, offering a concrete foundation for McCraney scholars, practitioners, and novices. As a result of its interdisciplinary approach, the book extends beyond theatre and performance studies, as it critically engages fields of religion, culture, gender, and sexuality. Ultimately, the strength of this book lies in how it frames the complexities of McCraney’s Black radical imagination and extraordinarily cultural storytelling through the investigation of his “various dramaturgical strategies and theatrical devices” (8).

DeRon S. Williams
Eastern Connecticut State University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 33, Number 2 (Spring 2021)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2021 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center