Tarell Alvin McCraney returns to Miami at the Borscht Film Festival

Long before Tarell Alvin McCraney was the international playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, he was walking home from Charles R. Drew Middle School in Liberty City. Just another young black kid from the projects, or so he thought. He walked by a group of three or four boys who called him a faggot and began to chase him. He didn't know the boys. He didn't know what a faggot was or why he was being called one. He just ran.

As the boys sprinted after him, they threw rocks, picking up whatever was nearby. Then, all of sudden, the rocks stopped. Why weren't the boys throwing them anymore? McCraney looked around and noticed he had run into a parking lot full of cars.

"They didn't want to break any of the windows," McCraney explains. "I thought, These people think they'll get into more trouble breaking glass than breaking me."

Tarell Alvin McCraney wears his heart on his sleeve, and his area code on his head.
Tarell Alvin McCraney wears his heart on his sleeve, and his area code on his head.

Most artists would run from their hometown after an upbringing like that, and in Miami, many run for much less. But McCraney is different. At 28 years old, he has already had three plays running simultaneously in London, he won the first New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award this year, and he earned a master's from the Yale School of Drama and a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. His trilogy of plays, collectively titled The Brothers Size, is getting the Broadway treatment at the Public Theater in New York City before the production moves to the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in early 2010. It's not a stretch to say he's the most celebrated playwright in the world under age 30, and even in this economy, he could work in any theater in the world.

Yet this summer, there was McCraney, back on Martin Luther King Boulevard and 11th and 12th avenues, just blocks from the streets where he was pelted with rocks, helping shoot a short film he wrote for this year's Borscht Film Festival, which opens this Saturday night at the Gusman Theater in downtown Miami. The film, Day N Night Out, is directed by McCraney's friend and Borscht cofounder, Lucas Leyva, a fellow Miami native, and chronicles several hours in Liberty City.

True to Borscht's mission of making films by, for, and about Miami, Day N Night Out stars 16-year-old Anthony Arias, a Liberty City kid whom McCraney and Leyva met while teaching theater at a summer program in Homestead for underprivileged kids called Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP). Like McCraney, Arias had a rough upbringing, enduring one stint of homelessness during which he slept in a graveyard. The two hit it off, and McCraney wrote the film about Arias, though it also incorporates a lot of McCraney's firsthand knowledge of Liberty City's brutality.

As a boy, McCraney split time between his mother's and father's apartments, until in the late '80s his mom decided the neighborhood was getting too dangerous and moved her children — McCraney has three siblings — to Homestead. McCraney was just beginning to feel comfortable in his new surroundings when Hurricane Andrew hit. Their apartment building became what McCraney jokingly calls "a testament to federal funding": The structure was fine, but the windows had shattered and the inside looked like an archaeological dig. "There were leaves imprinted on the walls," he says. "Everything we had was destroyed."

So they were forced to move back to Liberty City, and immediately McCraney noticed things had changed. The drug dealers, who had been men in their 30s when he was a kid, were suddenly his age. "Not to say that the drug dealers were ever sweet, cuddly people, but there was a difference," he says. "If I wandered into the drug hole, they'd admonish me or kick me out or tell me to go buy them ice cream. I'm not a sociologist, but when you've got teenagers running around trying to protect that much cash? There was a big shift in who was running things."

To make matters worse, McCraney knew his sexual orientation would make him a target at Miami Northwestern Senior High, which he was slated to attend. "I said no, I'm not taking my gay little self over to Northwestern," McCraney says. Instead, he persuaded his dad to let him go to Miami Senior High's film and video program, where he promptly flunked out. His last option was to try to get into New World School of the Arts. At the audition, he told them: "If I don't go to this school, I'm not going to do too well." He got in, and through the guidance of the staff at New World — as well as his work with Teo Castellanos's D-Projects theater troupe — McCraney developed into a talented performer. After graduation, he was accepted to DePaul University's notoriously cutthroat theater program and moved to Chicago.

With almost no money, McCraney had to hold down multiple work-study jobs in addition to his already rigorous performing schedule. The program also has a built-in attrition rate: 50 students are cut down to 36 the first year and then down to 20 the second year. McCraney says he was never worried about being cut, though, because he "grew up learning how to be expressive during oppressive conditions."

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