“Moonlight” Playwright Tarell McCraney Received Recognition from National YoungArts Foundation

Antwaun Sargent

Tarell McCraney. Portrait courtesy of YoungArts.

When the playwright Tarell McCraney walked on stage with director Barry Jenkins at the 2017 Oscars to accept the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Moonlight, he gave a shout-out to his mother and the city of Miami. “Thank god for my mother, who proved to me through her struggles, and the struggles that Naomie Harris portrayed for all of you, that we could really be here and be somebody,” he stammered emotionally. “Two boys from Liberty City up here on this stage, representing the 305.”

His Oscar-winning moment was nearly two decades in the making. When McCraney, who now chairs the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama, was a senior in high school, he applied to the Miami-based National YoungArts Foundation’s annual competition with a monologue. He didn’t place, but he remembers being mesmerized by the other young artists. He skipped an entire week of school to go watch the auditions of that year’s YoungArts finalists—including the future Alvin Ailey principal dancer Clifton Brown, Broadway actor Daniel Breaker and his friend, the choreographer Hattie Mae Williams.

“That moment of seeing those very talented young artists actually encouraged me to work harder,” explains McCraney, who will be honored in January at YoungArts’s annual Miami Backyard Ball for mentoring the organization’s young artists over the years and for his contributions to American art. “Here I was, watching other artists take full control of their artistic voice at a very early age. It said to me, Curate the things that you most desperately need to see. And so that trajectory has set me on a lifelong journey. Everything I do, I do it because it’s something that I want to see in the world.”

Since that formative experience, McCraney has written plays that have toured all over the world, including The Brother/Sister Plays, Head of Passes and Choir Boy, which portray the significance of African-American history and contemporary life through poetic verse. In 2007, when the playwright finished graduate school at Yale, he spent a few years in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company before becoming the 43rd member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble. “One of the things we don’t recognize often is that there’s a long road to most people’s careers,” says McCraney, who will write and executive-produce a coming-of-age drama inspired by his adolescence for the Oprah Winfrey Network. “I wrote Moonlight when I was 22 years old,” says the playwright, a 2013 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius” grant. “I’m 37 now, and so the time that it takes for an artist to mature can be long.”

As an artist committed to the development of aspiring actors, dancers, musicians and writers—and inspired by YoungArts’s mission to find, train and provide lifelong support for emerging artists—McCraney, who is now a YoungArts Master Teacher, started a conservatory-styled summer mentorship for young black women in his native neighborhood of Liberty City. Held at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, the Youth Artists Leadership Summer Program represents a full-circle moment for the gay black artist, who in his youth found refuge from bullying at the cultural center. Moonlight scenes were later filmed there. “In my community, I’ve long taken on that mission to cultivate young talent,” he says. “The artist needs to train right now. The artist’s body, the artist’s mind, the willingness to give of one’s sensitivities has to start early.”

“It goes back to that initial thing I said about YoungArts,” adds McCraney. “There was a moment in my life where I decided that the work in art didn’t necessarily mean notoriety. It meant that there was something important for me to say, and something important that I wanted to say, and if I focused on that, then my life in art would be long.”