EXCLUSIVE: ‘Moonlight’ Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney on Meeting Oprah and New TV Series
By George M. Johnson
Tarell Alvin McCraney's star had been rising long before he won the 2017 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Moonlight. Before garnering attention for the Barry Jenkins-directed movie, based on his unpublished semiautobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the 36-year-old playwright from Liberty City, Florida, has earned rave reviews for his body of work, including The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, making him one of the most recent notable MacArthur Fellowship recipients alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“I don’t feel any different, honestly,” McCraney says of life after winning his first Oscar. “I remember right after the awards, I went back to my hotel and started reading applications for the [Yale School of Drama], then flew into New Haven for the interviews.”
He notes that the feeling of winning an Oscar isn’t shared by many, but over time that “reality has moved to the forefront” of his thoughts. “The experience is one that is gradual, and hits at the oddest times. Barry and I text each other now and then, like, ‘We won an Oscar!,’” he laughs. “It hits you in waves, not all at once.”
This could also be due to the fact that McCraney’s work has only picked up since winning that evening. In June, a new production of his 2008 play Wig Out! opened to rave reviews in Washington, D.C., and will be followed by a Los Angeles production of Head of Passes, with Phylicia Rashad reprising the lead role as Shelah, in September. In addition to his commitment to the Yale School of Drama, he’s now working on his first TV series -- an amazing juggling act that he says he has always been prepared for.
“The great thing about growing up in the arts and attending Yale is they teach us to be multifaceted. So, there is no real transition from play to movies to play to television -- it just all works together,” McCraney says. “I wrote In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue as a play, knowing that was always meant to be a film.”
The untitled series -- a coming-of-age drama inspired by his life experiences -- is part of OWN’s expanded 2018 lineup of scripted programming and will be executive produced by Michael B. Jordan with Mike Kelley and Melissa Loy, the production team behind Revenge. “He is the one person who you want in your corner. He brings positivity, joy, and his love of the project shows in his instant engagement and from his heart,” McCraney says of Jordan, who “beams like a Care Bear and is an absolute joy.”
With everyone on board, there was one more approval needed, and that would come from the queen herself, Oprah Winfrey. “She literally stopped a board meeting to meet with us that day,” McCraney recalls. “I was extremely nervous reading the script that day, as Oprah sat there right in front of me.” He remembers her “asking a question and taking down some detailed notes,” describing the former daytime talk show host and chairwoman of her own network as having “a level of generosity that is just rarely seen. I know that I’m lucky to be engaging with these influential people at this time; everyone doesn’t get this chance.”
Moonlight was a narrative unlike anything seen in Hollywood, focused on the main character Chiron and how one’s environment and experience play a role in the journey to finding one’s true identity. The character of Juan, which earned Mahershala Ali an Oscar, was a testament to the way people can come into one’s life and change a person’s entire trajectory.
The new series will continue this messaging of the importance of teaching people that identity is a journey, one that doesn’t require labels. McCraney describes it as “a portrait of when a young black male decides they are going to be a man and what that looks like.” The show will pick up right at the end of the Obama era, following a 14-year-old boy haunted by the death of his best friend, and relied upon heavily by his mom to find a way out of poverty.
“Sometimes we have a point of where the politics and the policies of the world collide and we have to decide which way we will go in life. Young people are forced into a path where they aren’t allowed to go the right way they want to in life,” McCraney says. This show, however, will not just be about identity in terms of sexuality. “Sometimes you have to step into it or not, the labels society places on you. I was called gay long before I accepted it, but I had to make that choice on accepting it. How many other identities are forced upon children who are left to decide what they will and won’t accept? I often wonder what happens to people who don’t have a Juan in their life. This is a show that will discuss, ‘Who will you become?’”
The new series, like many of his plays, draws upon McCraney’s childhood experiences in Liberty City. Those memories he describes as “good and bad, joyous and terrifying,” noting that it’s different now because he can finally see his work reflected in the place he grew up. “I’ve always wanted to be able to celebrate my work at home. A theater there began staging my work seven or eight years ago. My work has become reflective in my community and it makes me feel complete,” he says, adding: “Some people love Moonlight, some not so much. But everyone is proud of me and happy about the positive things happening around Liberty City.”