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

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."

Then he was accepted into the Yale School of Drama. But his joy was tempered by news that his mother had died of AIDS-related complications. He went to New Haven with a heavy heart but excelled right away, serving as an assistant to the late August Wilson, perhaps the most renowned African-American playwright who ever lived. In his final year, McCraney won the school's Cole Porter Prize for playwrighting. His friend Leyva traveled to see McCraney's senior thesis performed at the Carlotta Festival at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The first thing he noticed was a photograph of Tarell on the wall.

"I guess they put the portraits of every winner up in the lobby, and I look at Tarell's and he's got a '305' shaved into his head," Leyva remembers.

Their lyrical, moving story about a smart kid from the projects is just one of four original films Borscht produced thanks to new funding from the Miami World Cinema Center, a homegrown initiative funded by the Knight Foundation. And because the films are Miami to the core — stories written, directed, cast, and shot in Dade County — Leyva believes it's only right that the festival should take place downtown. "For at least one night, we want to make the 'Potential Miami' everyone talks and dreams about a tangible reality," he says. "Or at least approximate it enough to get more people excited about the vision."

So when the doors to the Olympia Theater on East Flagler Street at Northeast Second Avenue open at 7 p.m. Saturday, Borscht will serve a signature drink — the CCCV (Roman numerals for 305), AKA rum and pineapple Jupiña. Then the four short films — along with five from other Miami filmmakers — will screen at 8, accompanied by trailers and fake trailers made for fun.

Afterward, some downtown restaurants and art galleries will stay open late for the Borscht audience, and Ecco and Electric Pickle will host official afterparties. Leyva promises there will be other surprises too.

"We're in the process of finalizing all sorts of things that have been done before," Leyva says.

And McCraney? Unfortunately, he's a victim of his own success. According to Leyva, the production of Hamlet McCraney is directing for the Royal Shakespeare Company has been such a huge hit in London that they've extended the run, preventing him from coming home for the festival premiere.

But McCraney promises he'll be back eventually, one way or another.

"[Returning to Miami] has always been the plan," he says. "One hundred years ago, my family moved to Coconut Grove from the Bahamas. London's not my home. New York City's not my home. Miami's where I'm from."

This Saturday, the future is now.

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