The Magic Of Tarell McCraney's 'Distant Present' The 28-year-old playwright has quickly earned admiration and high praise from the theater community. The McCarter Theatre is presenting his Brother/Sister series, a trio of plays in which he wraps familiar issues of family, community and coming of age.
NPR logo

The Magic Of Tarell McCraney's 'Distant Present'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Magic Of Tarell McCraney's 'Distant Present'

The Magic Of Tarell McCraney's 'Distant Present'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Princeton, New Jersey's McCarter Theater is presenting a trio of plays by a virtually unknown, 28-year-old, African-American playwright. His name is Tarell Alvin McCraney.

And as Jeff Lunden reports, he's generating a lot of buzz.

JEFF LUNDEN: When you talk to theater people about Tarell Alvin McCraney, words like singular and poetic and bold pop up frequently.

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Chief Drama Critic, The New York Times): This guy is the real thing. It's an authentic, original voice.

LUNDEN: Ben Brantley is chief drama critic for The New York Times. He wrote a rave review of McCraney's play "Wig Out," which was presented off-Broadway last fall.

Mr. BRANTLEY: He doesn't sound like anyone else, first of all. And yet he embraces so much. If you think of the scale of reference in "Wig Out," which is about drag queens in Harlem, it's Biblical, Shakespearean, the Supremes, B-movies. But it's not just quoting. It's been absorbed and synthesized into this truly musical language that has its own rules.

LUNDEN: McCraney may be young, but he's accomplished. As an actor, he worked with the great British director Peter Brook. As a playwriting student at Yale, he was the late August Wilson's assistant. And now Princeton's McCarter Theater will be presenting McCraney's brother-sister plays, a trilogy set in a housing project in Louisiana, in what the playwright calls the distant present.

In these plays, he explores familiar issues of family, community and coming of age, but wraps them in a dizzying mixture of West African mythology and theatrical storytelling devices.

Mr. TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY (Playwright): I have a job. My job is to sort of keep people engaged into the theater. So I find as many things that I think are powerful, palpable, visceral and engaging to do that.

LUNDEN: For instance, McCraney has his actors read their stage directions aloud while they're acting in a scene. It's quite a tightrope walk.

Actress Kiani Mouchette(ph) demonstrates.

Ms. KIANI MOUCHETTE (Actress): (as character) Goya laughs at her crazy mama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOUCHETTE: (as character) You're crazy.

And you know, in those moments it's actually good because at first, of course, it was kind of jarring. It was like, what? I got to live in this moment and then talk to the audience? Really? But the beauty in that is that we're really telling the story.

Unidentified Man #1: (acting) Enter: The boys.

Unidentified Man #2: (acting) The boys.

Unidentified Man #3: (acting) The boys.

Unidentified Man #1: (acting) In this class of language, there are boys from all the teams.

Unidentified Man #2: (acting) Focus. They sit behind Marcus.

Unidentified Man #1: (acting) From basketball to track, varsity to junior.

Unidentified Man #3: (acting) Whispering.

(Soundbite of whispering)

Unidentified Man #1: (acting) Every Monday, while the pop quizzes line the desks...

Unidentified Man #3: (acting) Hey, Marcus.

Unidentified Man #1: (acting) ... the boys all lean in a little closer, trying to pick up the answers that Marcus slinging down.

Unidentified Man #3: (acting) Marcus.

Unidentified Man #2: (acting) That's you.

Unidentified Man #1: (acting) They make propositions.

Unidentified Man #2: (acting) Hey.

Unidentified Man #1: (acting) Whisper in hushed-teacher-can't-hear-tones.

Unidentified Man #2: (acting) Let me see.

Unidentified Man #1: (acting) Their heads yank and their mouths smile, motioning for me to move my head.

Unidentified Man #2: (acting) Move your head. Move.

Unidentified Man #3: (acting) Move.

Unidentified Man #1: (acting) Whispering.

(Soundbite of whispering)

Unidentified Man #2: (acting) Marcus.

Unidentified Man #3: (acting) Marcus.

LUNDEN: A moment from "Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet," the third play of the trilogy, about an African-American teenager coming to grips with his homosexuality.

Tina Landau has directed two of Tarell Alvin McCraney's plays.

Ms. TINA LANDAU (Director): When I think of Tarell's plays, I think where they take place for me is in this theater on this night.

(Soundbite of singing)

Ms. LANDAU: That even though the place of the story that's being told is the distant present, Tarell demands that an audience and the actors acknowledge that we are in this room together, for this amount of time.

(Soundbite of singing)

Unidentified Woman: (as character) And with tears in her eyes...

(Soundbite of singing)

Unidentified Woman: (as character) ... tremors in her body, Oya watches her mother leave this world. Oya begins to sob and weep for her mother.

(Soundbite of sobbing)

Ms. EMILY MANN (Artistic Director, McCarter Theater): I don't think I have felt this strongly about an artist or a fellow playwright in 20 years.

LUNDEN: Emily Mann is artistic director of McCarter Theater. She says McCraney's brother-sister trilogy covers some pretty basic human experiences.

Ms. MANN: A broken heart is something we all understand. The loss of a parent or loss of someone great, he understands that. Sexuality of all kinds, he just thrives on portraying on stage, and does it accurately.

LUNDEN: The most performed work in the trilogy is "The Brother's Size," a taut, three-person play in which McCraney examines brotherhood.

Mr. MCCRANEY: We did this play in Ireland, and there were people who wrote in to the Abbey in Dublin saying, you know, I totally understand these characters because my brother is just like that.

Unidentified Man #4: The guards stop like a funeral coming down the halls in respect, respect of this man, mourning the loss of his brother. And you just hear the clanging on that man voice, bouncing on the cement and steel, chiming like a bell 'til he calm down, 'til he just whispering your name now, my brother. My brother, where? My brother, gurgling up from under the tears. My brother.

LUNDEN: "The Brother's Size," like all the plays in the trilogy, is staged with minimal sets and costumes. The focus is always on the words and the music - the plays have a lot of music - and the movement of the bodies of the actors. McCraney is as passionate about modern dance as he is about writing plays, and says when he's in rehearsal, he approaches his plays in a physical way.

Mr. MCCRANEY: I don't work on plays like normal playwrights because when, you know, the actors are staging this stuff, I'm onstage with them, staging it. And it's exhausting and emotionally challenging. It pulls you this way and throws you that way, and spins you around. But I think what the audience gains out of that is an incredible trip to a place that they've never been. They come out feeling like they've been to the foreign, and it's been made familiar.

LUNDEN: "In the Red and Brown Water," the first of the brother-sister trilogy, starts previews at McCarter Theater tonight. The other plays begin performances in May.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

NORRIS: And you can hear scenes from Tarell Alvin McCraney's plays on our website,

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.