Tarell Alvin McCraney on hustlers, hip hop and homophobia
But when the 30-year-old glides past a large marble bust of Shakespeare in the RSC offices to greet me - as a six-foot shimmer of cheekbones and designer labels - he looks like something else again: a Gap model, perhaps, or the ballet dancer he once wanted to be. He holds himself with a perfectly straight posture, and speaks in a soft voice that forces you to lean forward a little to hear him.
Most people, when they look at his plays, gawp at the parade of identities that seem to march through McCraney's mind. He's a black gay intellectual from the hood whose plays are a mash-up of everything from Nigerian myth to English social comedy to macho Miami hip hop to New York drag queens. These hybrids were soon squatting across London's most prestigious stages, with two of his plays becoming hits at the Young Vic - The Brothers Size, 2007, and In the Red and Brown Water the following year - and Wig Out! at the Royal Court in 2009.
His latest play, commissioned by the RSC for its current season at Hampstead Theatre, is called American Trade. It is, he says, "the story of an American hustler who comes to set up shop in London - and the hilarity that ensues". He has explained in the past that "my plays are about what people use to build a life on when they don't have many options". Is the hustler at the heart of this play, Pharus, chancing and charming through life from lucky break to lucky break, like him?
When I ask, McCraney smiles, but it's a small smile, looking to the side. Then he says carefully, "Pharus is somebody trying to avoid attachments - to stay naked of all the things in life that accumulate around you. I grew up in a situation where I knew not to hold anything too hard, because nothing is really yours. You have to try to be yourself, your vulnerable self, without making any attachments or any expectations. The more we attach onto those things the more they disappoint us."
It's not hard to trace why he feels this way. His mother had him when she was very young, and crashed into crack addiction soon after. "I spent so long trying to be a child but not being able to," he says. "I stopped being a child in a way. I spent a great deal of time just banging my head against the wall and, y'know, crying a lot. I used to literally cry at school. I used to literally sit and cover my head and cry."
But when he turned 11, it stopped. "I really had gone into this much more self-sustaining mode. I wasn't really thinking about things that children think about, like clothes. At 13, I never thought: 'Oh yeah, I'll wear this and it'll look nice and then I'll go to the movies tonight and it'll be cool'. I just thought: 'Work hard; work harder; these are the next steps you've got to get to; you've got a long way to go, buddy'. Those were the kinds of conversations I was having with myself at the time."
McCraney was 13 when he found out his mother was HIV-positive. "It started a clock in my head," he says. "I think that was the hardest thing about our relationship. I always had a clock, going, 'Gonna get you. Gonna get you. Any day now'." We talk about his mother for a long time, and it strikes me that there is no anger in anything he says. "Why would I be?" he asks quietly. "Is there a reason I should be?" It sounds like a genuine question. So I say that I have been close to an addict in my life, and while I felt compassion, I also felt rage - at the futility, at the selfishness.
He looks down. "You really think she was that fully conscious of those choices? I don't think for a second she thought, 'I don't want to take care of my child'. I think she really wanted to. I've seen people who get addicted to drugs and rarely have I seen a person who was vindictively doing it. Very rarely."
He looks straight at me. "It's hard for me to keep that kind of anger because I can see what my mother was wrestling with. I mean - people can call it excuses. My mother was molested as a child but she could never tell anybody she was molested by someone very close to her own mother. A hurricane came and destroyed our entire home. She lost my stepfather, who was shot and killed by drug dealers - other drug dealers. You know, I can't be angry at that woman for trying to find a semblance of joy. Maybe it wasn't what we think of as the right way. But she was just trying."
He thinks he too would have been on a path to self-destruction if he hadn't got involved in a Miami street-theatre project for the children of drug addicts. They uncovered his startling talent - and it rocket-fired him through Princeton to working with Peter Brook in Paris and now at the RSC. His plays have found their most receptive home here in London, starting with The Brothers Size (for which, with In the Red and Brown Water, he won the Evening Standard's Most Promising Playwright Award), where his highly stylised dialogue and throw-all-cultures-into-a-blender style seemed to mesh with our mood.
"I love the ability of a person to flip between identities and to play with them," McCraney says, intently. "For me, identity isn't a conflict - it's a range of games for me to play with myself to survive. We all have a voice we would call a 'double consciousness'. There's the way I speak with my friends back home, which isn't the way I speak now. At some point you are told you have to be one or the other. But I just say - to hell with that."
In American Trade, directed by Jamie Lloyd, he teases out one way in which his identities can collide and clash. A congressman launches an investigation into homophobia in hip hop and reggae. McCraney grew up loving this music - but also being repulsed and frightened by the homophobia that saturates it. He turns even more soft-spoken when he recalls first hearing the reggae hits Boom Bah Bah to the Batty Boy and Burn De Chi Chi Man.
"That is saying, 'I'm going to shoot a gay man in the head', 'burn the chi chi man down'. These were the songs that were ringing down my block. And people were dancing to it and screaming to it and jumping up and down. Those cries, that shouting and celebrating. I mean, the day I heard that song in my neighbourhood, I had to be like 11 years old. It came on the radio and scared me so much, I almost cried. But I couldn't cry because I thought that maybe someone would know I was gay."
It's unthinkable, he says, that we would passively tolerate music that incited hatred against black people in this way. "I get very angry about it," he says. "Buju Banton just went to jail. People are saying, 'Free Buju Banton! He's such a beautiful, wise man'. Yeah, who wants to burn gay people and blow up their heads."
And then he apologises for getting angry, offering another of his full smiles. He's like a whirring empathy machine, constantly trying to soothe and charm and woo the people around him: at the end of the interview, I see him doing it with everybody else in the offices too. Meeting McCraney is like drinking a cool alcoholic drink on a hot, stormy day - it's soothing and intense and anxiety-making all at once, and leaves you feeling a little woozy.
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