05/05/2011 10:55 am ET Updated Jul 05, 2011

From the Crack Dens of Miami to the Royal Shakespeare Company: An Interview With Tarell Alvin McCraney

Tarell Alvin McCraney has made an unusual journey in his thirty years of life -- from the slums of Miami, where his crack-addicted mother died of AIDS and his brother ended up in jail, to writer-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. But when he glides past a large marble bust of Shakespeare in the RSC offices to greet me -- 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. His latest play, 'American Trade', 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, he smiles, but it's a small smile, looking to the side. The 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 eleven, it stopped. "I really had gone into this much more self-sustaining mode. I wasn't really thinking about things that children think about. Clothes. At 13, 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 didn't think about those things. 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'. You know? Those were the kinds of conversations I was having with myself at the time."

Tarell was thirteen 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 after that. 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. I ask why, and he says quietly: "No. Why would I be?... 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? When you talk about addicts you've known, even now, that breaks my heart." His eyes well up. "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 drug addiction, I've seen people who get addicted to drugs and rarely have I seen a person who was vindictively doing drugs. Very rarely."

He looks straight at me, and smiles again, gently. "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, she could never tell anybody she was molested by someone very close to her own mother. A hurricane came and destroyed our whole 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 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.

There is, he says, some psychological whip-lash: "I have never been into a place where I could be absolutely my whole self all the time. If you know a way to do it, I would love to hear the way to do it. But I don't think that's possible. I don't think there are places where we can be all of our greedy selfish selves at all moments, all the time. It just doesn't work like that."

Tarell looks intently and says: "I love the ability of a person to flip between identities and to play with them. 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."

But sometimes, these identities do collide. He grew up loving hip-hop and reggae, but also being startled at its constant annihilatory rage against "faggots." In 'American Trade,' a congressman launches an investigation into homophobia in this music. I him ask about this, and Tarell instantly remembers when he first heard 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 I stopped where I was and went back in the house. It scared me so much, I almost cried. But I couldn't cry but 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 this," he says. "Buhu Banton just went to jail. People are going '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 apologizes for getting angry, sweetly, with offers of 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 Tarell is like drinking a cool alcoholic drink on hot, stormy day -- it's soothing and intense and anxiety-making all at once, and leaves you feeling a little woozy.

As the interview ends and I am about to leave, he brings up the theatre program that found him on the streets of Miami. "It changed my life, and without that I don't think I'd be here. I might not be alive," he says, delicately. "We talked about my mother. But she found her way, and I found this, I found writing. But, damn, there but for the grace of God..." And he pauses, stares at the bust of Shakespeare, and smiles once more, this time to himself.

To buy tickets for American Trade, click here. This article also appeared in the London Evening Standard. You can read more of Johann's interviews at his website. You can follow him on Twitter at