UT Austin stages 'Moonlight' creator's 'unapologetically black' love story
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is perhaps best known for his 2016 Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Moonlight” — adapted from his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” — but in theatrical circles, he is just as acclaimed for his remarkable trilogy, “The Brother/Sister Plays.”
Consisting of “In the Red and Brown Water,” “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet,” the three plays tell separate but interconnected stories of various characters in the fictional town of San Pere, La. Influenced by Yoruba culture as much as by their Louisiana setting, “The Brother/Sister Plays” explore theatrical form and dialogue along with presenting the often-overlooked stories of black American life.
After an acclaimed production of “In the Red and Brown Water (ITRBW)” in 2016, the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas now is mounting the final play in the trilogy, “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” (through March 8 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre on the UT campus), with the same co-directors, faculty members Charles O. Anderson and Robert Ramirez.
We spoke with Anderson about this production and its connection to the rest of the trilogy, Anderson’s previous work staging McCraney’s plays, and the importance of stories about the black experience that are not tragedies.
Austin American-Statesman: “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” is the third play in Tarell Alvin McCraney's trilogy, “The Brother/Sister Plays,” but it also stands as a wholly independent story. How does it connect with the other two plays in the trilogy?
Charles O. Anderson: Yes, it is its own discrete story, situated in the fictional time/place of San Pere, La., like the two previous works. “Marcus” is really about the next generation of community members we first meet in “ITRBW” as well as a sort of conclusion to what unfolds in “The Brothers Size.” We get to meet the children of characters from “ITRBW” and track how some of those characters have aged since their youth.
A few years ago you co-directed (also with Robert Ramirez) one of the earlier plays in the trilogy, “In the Red And Brown Water.” Is this production informed by that one in any way, or are you thinking of them in completely separate terms?
McCraney makes it impossible to not reflect upon “ITRBW,” which is what drew Robert and I to the play. Building upon African diasporic cosmologies, McCraney creates a rich mythology with this that could easily continue beyond even “Marcus.” Referring specifically to Robert's and my previous dance theater collaboration, we are definitely leaning into some of the conventions we first developed in “ITRBW” — the most obvious being the intricate relationship of movement/dance to the written/spoken word. Certain gestures in “ITRBW” return, embodied by the younger generation or evolved by the older characters who reappear in this play. And once again, we are blessed to have a brilliant production team who are also riffing off of the brilliant work from our production of “ITRBW.”
Your area of specialization is dance, while Robert's is acting. How do those two disciplines connect and coalesce in the ways you co-direct?
Well, the way McCraney writes and the explicit reference to Yoruba culture makes it easy. The language of the play demands movement and the movement conveys meaning in how the play is written on the page. Particularly in “Marcus,” McCraney often has moments of dialogue where only the characters' names are written, but no words are on the page. We try to honor this direction. It also helps that Robert is very much a dancer at heart and my form of dance is informed by acting/theater. There are numerous moments in the play where I took the active lead in directing the actors on how to deliver language and other moments where Robert deftly directs the dancers on how to inflect the movement to “speak.”
As a playwright, McCraney is interested in depicting stories of "the other America“ and representing various facets of the black experience that don't often get stage or screen time. What aspects of American life do you think he brings to light in “Marcus”?
I will be honest in saying that “Marcus” is a very poignant story for me personally as a black gay American man who grew up in a southern community reminiscent to the one McCraney has created. This particular story offers a refreshing take on growing up black, gay and poor, particularly in the sense that it is not a tragedy; there is love in those communities, and acceptance. That particular narrative about the black experience in the U.S. is rarely presented onstage or screen. What McCraney also does unflinchingly is centralize a specific worldview with few (if any) translations for those outside of the black experience.
McCraney doesn't shy away from tough and uncomfortable questions, situations, and characters in his plays. Does working with student actors influence the ways in which you approach those difficult issues, as a director?
For both Robert and I, one of the greatest gifts of this production has been this cast. They are fearless and have taught us both how far we have come societally when it comes to dealing with gay themes. Working on this production has also revealed to both Robert and I how far our programs have come in terms of racial diversity here at UT. For “ITRBW” we barely had enough performers of color to pull it off. For “Marcus,” we saw so many truly incredible actors and dancers of color! And that makes a difference. The process for this production, like the play itself, was unapologetically black. The cast can see themselves in these characters, they see their humanity and their complexity — they care about these characters and recognize the responsibility they have to embody them in front of audiences that may have less experience with "the Other America." It has been a privilege to learn from them.
When: Feb. 26-March 8.
Where: Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 300 E. 23rd St., on the University of Texas campus.