‘Brother’ to brother
an interview with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney

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The Brother/Sister Plays

Glenn Davis and Phillip James Brannon in Steppenwolf’s “The Brother/Sister Plays” (“The Brother Size”) by Tarell Alvin McCraney. – Photo: Michael Brosilow

Gay playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays” is one of the most memorable theatrical experiences you are ever likely to encounter. Currently playing at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, the trilogy runs more than three hours. But it’s time well spent – as emotionally rewarding as it is refreshing.


Set in Louisiana and spanning a 16-year period, “The Brother/Sister Plays,” which includes “In The Red Brown Water,” “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet,” acquaint us with an unforgettable array of characters, all of whom are connected in various ways throughout all three pieces.

McCraney is a recipient of the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, a Whiting Award, a GLAAD Award, London’s Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, the New York Times’ Outstanding Playwright Award 2009 and a 2010 Joyce Award. There is no question that he is an artist with a bright and promising future.

Gregg Shapiro: What does winning a Joyce Award mean to you?

TAM: The Joyce Award is given to an artist of color in the Midwest area to help spawn new work. I’ve been invited to create a new work specifically for the Steppenwolf ensemble. It’s a tall and honorable order, I think.

GS: Did you have a target audience in mind for “The Brother/Sister Plays”?

TAM: I hope that the plays are universal, and that they are accessible for many people. But I do hope to elicit a draw, if you will, for lack of a better word, of people who don’t normally go to the theater – people who often find themselves being left out of what most of American theater has been.

GS: There is the double usage of the word “brother” – both biological and fraternal – in “The Brothers Size.” Do you have siblings or did you seek brotherhood outside of the confines of family?

TAM: I do have brothers. I have two brothers and a sister. And I have many friends who I consider brothers, as well.

GS: How much, if any, of you is in the characters?

TAM: It’s debatable. My actual brothers came to see the shows in New York. And, of course, people wanted to instantly ask them the same question. “How much of them is in the plays?” And they immediately said, “All of them are Tarell.” For me, I say that none of it is biographical. I mean, the stories they may tell – or some of the jokes that they have – may be from my own life. But the actual plotline of the story, there’s no one-to-one comparison to my life.

GS: Mothers and fathers are as important in the trilogy as brothers. Is that a reflection of your own relationship with your family?

TAM: It’s ultimately about how people relate to their parents and the people who came before them and how they tried to interact with them and use them as the foundations on which they build their lives. Many times in the community that I’m from, that a lot of people are from, those foundations are snatched from you. Either they don’t survive to see you through the transition in to adulthood or they are so intertwined with other things. Maybe they’ve gone to jail or they work really late hours, so you become a child of the neighborhood.

Those kinds of relationships, to me, were interesting and important to me, because a lot of times we like to demonize the people who come from those types of families. We like to say that we’re accepting of people who come from a home that is not necessarily traditional, but somehow we turn around and shun them for being who they are. I thought it was important to have theater reflect that these people have lives and feelings and love and wants and dreams like everybody else.

GS: What was your coming out experience like?

TAM: Easy. Not easy, but it was obvious. My family told me I was gay before I knew I was gay. It wasn’t really a coming-out process (laughs). They called me names and said I had these tendencies, so I was like, “Well, I guess” (laughs).

GS: Would you like to see a film version of “The Brother/Sister Plays” someday?

TAM: Oh, sure. I would love to help get it into a film. But at the end of the day, my dedication is to the theater and these plays specifically are designed to help, like I said before, allow the audience to re-engage with the theater in a way that I think sometimes we can lose. I hope to keep adding a certain weave to the tapestry of the American theater. Which is something that says this theatrical experience is unlike what you will have sitting in front of a television or going to see a film. It is something that is uniquely in the theater. If you’re not here, this experience won’t happen. If you don’t come, this moment of conversation, this discourse with you doesn’t occur.

“The Brother/Sister Plays” runs through May 23 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Call 312-335-1650.

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