Can Tarell Alvin McCraney Begin a New Racial Dialogue?

Mitchel Civello (Contributor) is a BFA 4 Theatre Arts Major. His work can be seen as Assistant Director for The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde and as co-dramaturg of the upcoming Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen.

In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play The Brothers Size, the adult brothers Oshoosi and Ogun are at home, doing nothing. Ogun gets up and puts on an Otis Redding record and “Try A Little Tenderness” fills the theatre. Oshoosi and Ogun snap into position, even though they haven’t done this in years: the former at vocals, imaginary microphone in hand; his brother right behind him on bass, keyboards and drums. They perform the song, giving themselves over to the music with abandon. They become kids again.

The next day, when Ogun gives Oshoosi the keys to his car and tells him to run, rather than go back to prison, you realize that the previous night’s proceedings will turn into a precious memory. A moment as brief and fleeting as a pop song becomes permanent in the hearts of two brothers.

It’s poetically crafted moments like that which have catapulted Tarell Alvin McCraney to the front line of young American playwrights. His unique brand of theater, full of folklore, sensuality and myth has also nabbed him a litany of awards and the acclaim of every major theatre critic.

Well, almost every major theatric critic – all except, quite notably, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als.

The New York Times wrote that McCraney is “something rare in the theatre: a new, authentically original vision.” Rarer still, McCraney is, like Als, African-American and gay. I’m not suggesting that all critics must like all art made by artists who have the same race, gender or sexual orientation as they do. But I find that when an artist is as near-universally praised as McCraney, to be the one negative critic and the one who is of the same race and sexuality as the artist points to a disapproval of something larger than the artist’s work itself, and often something that white, heterosexual critics are not aware of, or don’t feel comfortable broaching in a review.

In Als’ review of McCraney’s play Wig Out! – about a group of Black and Latino drag queens – he called McCraney “over-hyped”, saying that he wrote a “mercilessly shallow script”. For his Brother/Sister Plays review Als went full force, calling McCraney “portentous and pretentious.”

The backlash can be understood to a point: The New Yorker is a skeptical magazine, and Als is equally skeptical of representations of African-Americans in the arts and media, often championing provocative and incendiary artists of color. For instance, don’t expect Als to write a profile of Bill Cosby, but you can read the admiring article he wrote on Richard Pryor, as well as a damning critique of box office sensation Tyler Perry.

From his writings, Als reveals himself as interested in African Americans who’ve achieved success in a chosen field while still making their race a defining aspect of what they’re selling. And for all their visceral impact, McCraney’s plays don’t directly address race, except in one scene in “The Brothers Size” when the characters trade impressions of a white racist police officer. McCraney set his trilogy in an African American community in Louisiana – an insulated world. The only white character is the college recruiter that visits Oya. The long shadow he casts across the stage whenever he appears gives him a spooky and unwanted quality.

As a minority myself, I may have my preferences about what constitutes “good” gay art, but I also know that any stance I take on the issue is biased: I’m not disagreeing with the art, per se, but with how I think gay people should and should not be represented. Stereotypes are universal, but everyone divides the line between the human and caricature differently, as well as formulates their own notions of how much of the personal can be put into the political.

The political is not part of McCraney’s style. The Brother/Sister Plays are more about individuals and their interconnectedness rather than socio-political themes. The plays explore identity – Oshoosi and Ogun reckoning their brotherly bond, Marcus accepting his “sweet” sexuality, Oya’s struggling with familial ties – without engaging in identity politics.

Could it be that McCraney’s plays are a signal of the post-racial era? The Brother/Sister Plays never mention Obama, but that’s more because they’re going for timeless rather than timely. McCraney set the trilogy in what he calls “the distant present.” Yet, there is something about his plays that are testament to the universality of family, love and the mysteries of life that appeal to audiences. As the African American Steppenwolf ensemble member K. Todd Freeman said in an interview, “I do believe we’re all the same – and it’s so clichéd and so trite that phrase, but I think it’s what you can call a core belief of mine. I never thought that humanity was so different…Stop trying to draw attention to how different we are, lets draw attention to how similar we are, and then it can work better”.

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company received rave reviews for their production of The Brother/Sister Plays, but it was also the first time in recent memory that anyone could recall seeing a group of black actors on The Steppenwolf stage in a show not for Young Adults. In an American theatre that is still largely ghettoized, I fail to see how staging a world premiere play by a talented writer of color, with an ensemble of black actors, could be anything but political. I hope that future audiences, and Hilton Als, will see the necessity of brilliant writers like McCraney. To quote a repeated line from The Brother/Sister Plays: how could we not?


One response to “Can Tarell Alvin McCraney Begin a New Racial Dialogue?

  1. In addition to what this writer says, I think that Hilton Als had no business reviewing Tyler Perry. Als writes about serious drama; Perry comes out of the popular culture. Both have their place, but use different criteria for excellence.

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