November 1, 2013 6:38 pm

Tarell Alvin McCraney

Tarell Alvin McCraney©Tina Hillier

Tarell Alvin McCraney is 33 but has already spent a quarter of a century working in the arts. At the age of “eight or nine” he says, he put himself forward for theatre courses near his home in inner-city Miami. “Somehow I just managed to be in the right place at the right time, where there were state- and city-funded programmes for students in the inner city whose parents made below a certain amount of money; we could take free courses in acting and playwriting and dance.”

McCraney is now one of theatre’s brightest international talents. The director and playwright is an ensemble member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and associate artist for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). His best-known work is The Brother/Sister Plays (2009), a loosely linked trilogy set in Louisiana which draws (like much of McCraney’s work) on folklore and African myth. His most recent play, Head of Passes, premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre earlier this year.

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We meet during the lunch break at the RSC’s rehearsal rooms in south London. McCraney is working here with the cast of his adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra, which he also directs. It’s only a couple of weeks till opening night, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and I’m told the morning rehearsal is running late.

Eventually we get the call. And at the top of confusing and endless flights of stairs, guided by “Antony and Cleopatra” notices sellotaped to the wall, we enter a large rehearsal space. McCraney is hunched over his phone, tapping away, focused, while the rest of the cast and crew chat or head out to eat.

He joins me in a tiny cubbyhole off the stairs. It looks like an interrogation room: no window, just a table and two chairs. It’s probably the least lovely place I’ve ever conducted an interview – but theatre is, I console myself, all about imagined worlds. And McCraney is passionate about the re-imagining of this RSC project.

Jonathan Cake©Manuel Harlan

Antony played by Jonathan Cake

His adaptation (“a sort of reorganising”) of Shakespeare’s play has Antony and Cleopatra living in the late 18th century in what is now Haiti. It’s the eve of the Haitian revolution, when the enslaved people of the French colony of Saint Domingue rose up in rebellion. After much bloodshed an independent Haitian republic was founded in 1804.

McCraney explains the impulse behind his reworking: “There is something iconic and almost instant that happens when you put a black Cleopatra and a white Antony in colonial clothes, and the power struggles that happen … It’s the making of the new identity and new identities because of the collision of the old world and the new.”

Even if we don’t know much about the Haitian revolution, he says, the themes thrown up by the play are still relevant. “You know, 1492 and all it brought on – it is still evocative and we are still feeling the repercussions of that collision.”

After Stratford, the play will transfer to New York and Miami early in 2014 – along with McCraney and the same 10-strong cast. He has brought together a group of British and American actors, including former schoolmates from Miami. McCraney was delighted to have been able to include them in this racially and culturally mixed work.“People from Miami get the mix, we understand how even our accents are a mix of different accents, overlaid on top of each other.”

McCraney was born in 1980 and grew up in the Liberty City district of Miami. It’s a tough area – and McCraney has spoken before about the bullying he encountered as a gay teenager whose life focused on dance and theatre (he attended a performing arts middle school, as well as a performing arts high school). His mother, who had been a drug user, died when McCraney was in his early twenties. His father still lives in the home where the young Tarell and his two brothers and a sister grew up.

It was hardly a privileged upbringing, but it gave McCraney an insight into an aspect of humanity often hidden or denied in the modern world, and which has informed much of his work. “We lived in a neighbourhood where there was a voodoo lady, and the santería people are not far away, if you want to find them; they are down the street in the other direction. I think people think I am making things up, but in a place where drugs and guns exist also exist these other, mythical things, and many people do believe there is a good and evil spiritual fight in the world.”

Joaquina Kalukango©Manuel Harlan

Cleopatra played by Joaquina Kalukango

It’s McCraney’s extraordinary ability to incorporate this hidden world into his plays that sets him apart. It hasn’t always gone down well with critics. “Some of the critics who can’t stand my work say it’s ‘folksy’, and that’s true, I can’t say that it’s not,” he says. “But what I would do is to invite them to live in my neighbourhood and see that is actually what happens.”

Plenty of people, however, think McCraney’s is some of the very best work in contemporary theatre. In September he won his biggest accolade to date when he was named one of 24 MacArthur Fellows for 2013. This is one of the US’s most prestigious awards, rewarding creative achievement and potential in many fields, and offers a stipend of $625,000, paid over five years. McCraney was chosen, the foundation says, for his work in “exploring new roles for fantasy, surrealism, and mythology in drama and fiction”.

What does the fellowship mean to him? “They are a big deal in the US but when it happened people here were sort of, ‘oh, nice, we have no idea what that means’!”

The money will give him some breathing space between projects, which he hasn’t had before. “What I normally do when a piece is about to go up is – where am I going to be? What am I going to be working on? I will be a little less prompt, or hyped, or agitated, to do that now.”

Hesitantly, McCraney mentions that he found out about the fellowship in the same week that he accepted an inaugural Windham Campbell prize at Yale – where he studied playwriting at graduate school. Nine awards of $150,000 each were made to writers for outstanding achievement. (The other winners included the veteran American novelist James Salter, who is 87.) “I was so astonished and lucky to get it. Then I got this phone call [from the MacArthur Foundation] and I thought, ‘I will just be a little quiet’.”

Tarell McCraney©Manuel Harlan

McCraney at a rehearsal of 'Antony and Cleopatra' with the RSC

Prizes are just like London buses, I suggest – you wait for ages and then two come along at once. McCraney laughs. Would he like to live in London? “I love it here. If I had a job that actually paid a salary I would totally take up residence.”

He says that he doesn’t really live anywhere. “The address I grew up in Miami is my permanent address, but even my mail doesn’t go there, it goes to Steppenwolf.” He spends about three months of the year in each of four cities – Chicago, New York, London and Miami. Home, it seems, is where the work is – but what happens when he finishes a project? “I haven’t been finished in quite a long time,” he says.

When Antony and Cleopatra has its run in McCraney’s home city, he has arranged for the weekday performances to be free for local high-school students. He has experience in this area: his 70-minute production of Hamlet for the RSC toured British schools in 2010. He hopes to build an infrastructure for students in Miami to have similar access to Shakespeare’s work. “We have been trying to build a momentum behind it, and we hope we will get more foundation support, so that people will always be able to do work like that.”

Shakespeare might not be an obvious choice for inner-city American high-schoolers, but McCraney has been studying the plays since he was a teenager – and believes wholeheartedly in their universality. “William Shakespeare helps reverberate and shine a light on issues that we are still wrestling with,” he says of Antony and Cleopatra’s tragedy, with its themes of colonisation, race, love and (yes) the supernatural.

McCraney is restless. He’s been fidgeting in his chair, ready to go. The lunch hour over, he gives a quick, courteous farewell and his tall, lean frame is out of the door and back to the work.

Isabel Berwick is associate editor of FT Life & Arts. ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, November 7-30.

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