Meet the Playwright

Tarell Alvin McCraney writes at the intersection of culture and history. His work examines the African-American experience, often drawing on rhythm and language of ritual. He is also a powerful voice in a generation of LGBTQ artists whose work is changing the paradigms of how society talks about gender and sexuality, onstage and off.

McCraney’s plays weave lyrical, character-driven language into rich emotional worlds. His breakthrough The Brother/Sister Plays, a triptych of contemporary stories of redemption and discovery set in the Louisiana bayou, were informed by West African Yoruba mythology. Head of Passes aligns one woman’s crisis of faith in the aftermath of a natural disaster with the Book of Job. Choir Boy, a music-filled story examining the complexity of identity, masculinity, faith, and sexuality, is set in the gospel choir of an elite prep school for young black men. His plays have been seen across the country and around the world. McCraney’s work has long had a home in England, where he was the Warwick International Playwright in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is also a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble in Chicago and a member of Teo Castellanos/D-Projects in Miami, where he was raised.

McCraney wrote the first draft of Wig Out! while pursuing his MFA in Playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. During his relationship with a person who later identified as transgender, McCraney became immersed in the riotous world of African-American drag ball culture. For him, “it was a confusing yet exhilarating time; it’s a world that was changing before its eyes and my eyes.” He set out to write a pageant play revolving around a party, based in the ball world—a space he describes as “ephemeral, but real”, where the consequences are material and profound, but the “life of the party adds a glossy sheen to some very powerful issues.”

Wig Out! premiered at the Royal Court in London, and debuted at the Vineyard Theatre in 2008. McCraney’s note in the script acknowledges that in order for Wig Out! to feel current, it must be updated. (The note, written as a quote from the play’s feisty Venus, reads: “By the time this play is produced, assuming that the motherfucker is produced, half of the language and song will already be antiquated. Bitches!”) McCraney is aware of the delicacy of writing about a marginalized culture, and how increased visibility leads to change: “As things become mainstream, you see the culture find ways to become more intimate, more immediate, and more accessible to itself.”  Exposure has changed the fabric of these spaces, so McCraney is eager to rediscover this world, to see what has “become vogue again”, and to find what has disappeared from sight.

Steering this reinvestigation will be director Kent Gash, one of McCraney’s longtime artistic collaborators. Gash directed Studio’s 2015 production of Choir Boy, and was also the first director to develop Wig Out! with McCraney at  the Sundance Theatre Lab in 2007. “I trust him implicitly with the understanding of the world of Wig Out!,” McCraney says. “Every time I’ve done a production, I’ve done rewrites. You have to just see it, to see bodies in the space portraying it in order to understand what’s relevant and what’s not.”

At the first rehearsal for Choir Boy, Gash spoke about the relevance and resonance of McCraney’s work. Two years later, his words reverberate more vigorously with each passing day in a climate where the need and cry for racial justice are louder than ever before—and will inform the work of recapturing the world of Wig Out!:

“We are living through a moment in American history where lives of African-American men are under siege in this country. And that derives from a lack of understanding. A lack of knowledge. That all lives are valuable, cherished, and to be celebrated. That all lives should be allowed to achieve their actual fundamental potential. But for that to occur, as a society we must begin to build bridges of understanding. We must begin to ask, ‘Who are you? What do you care about? Who do you love? What do we have in common? How do we move forward together?’”

Sivan Battat