Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney Discusses the Piece That Inspired ‘Moonlight’

"We don't often get to see that moment where someone has to actually take off the avatar that they've put on to protect themselves."

Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight narrates three transformative phases of the life of a taciturn, emotionally hyperaware gay black kid who’s growing up in the projects of Liberty City, Miami. However, Tarell Alvin McCraney — the MacArthur-honored playwright/Steppenwolf Theatre member on whose work Moonlight was based — tells me the piece that inspired the film had a notably different structure to its celluloid incarnation.

Moonlight, the film, adheres with deliberate rigidity to a chaptered structure. The protagonist’s childhood comes first, and is titled I. Little (a nickname). His adolescence is next, and this is titled II. Chiron (his actual name). And then, finally, there’s his adulthood, which is titled III. Black (a pregnant moniker he assumes following certain physical/lifestyle changes).

McCraney’s piece In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, however, sees these periods overlapping. McCraney explains that the piece — which was written as a project in drama school, and isn’t really a play (though it’s been reported as such) — “was three parts simultaneously, so you saw a specific day in the life of all three of the characters, but you learned eventually that they were one person.” It seems key to emphasize the notion that the characters may have been perceived as different individuals, entirely. In the film you never question this, but you’re still struck by — and supposed to be struck by — the changes this one character undergoes; played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, Chiron literally becomes a cast of three.

McCraney’s work as a playwright has previously focused on the divergent potentialities of personal narratives, and often those of young black men. One of his early plays, The Brothers Size, performed in 2007 at the Public Theater, centered on two brothers who, like the different eras of Chiron, share an upbringing and genes, but who differ markedly in the way they navigate and come to terms with — or refuse to come to terms with — what the world has scantly offered them as black men raised in poverty. Similarly, the three eras of Chiron could be each other’s siblings; there is a physical disconnect between them that each actor slowly transcends by bearing a deep continuity of some other aspect of their being — something ineffable, and I’ll give into triteness and just call that a shared soul.

In In the Moonlight, which McCraney set in his own home of Liberty City, FL, the playwright tried to lay out some of his own biographical questions about growing up with a mother grappling with drug addiction, and growing up gay in a neighborhood sequestered by race and class, in a community where his own divergence from masculine norms led him to be classified as Other from a young age.

Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins likewise grew up in Liberty City — and in the very same public housing unit as McCraney — Liberty Square, though they didn’t know each other. His adaptation of McCraney’s work combined their diverging and overlapping experiences, and projected them onto the story of a protagonist, who, through the convergence of time and society’s all-too-often blanketing perceptions of black manhood, lives as a beautifully unchanging soul housed within three metamorphosed bodies.

I sat down with McCraney in the offices of A24, which produced and distributed Moonlight, and spoke to him about the film’s poetic focus on the body, its locational and intersectional specificities as well as its universalities, and the nature of having one’s experiences adapted.

Flavorwire: Given that it’s unpublished and unperformed, can you describe your play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue structurally for us?

Tarell Alvin McCraney: The play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue doesn’t exist because it was never a play form. I never tried to produce or publish it because it wasn’t meant for that. It’s written in a very visual language. It was never written down like a play. As my friend described it when he first read it, there’s no “event,” and for a play to happen you need an event — The Cherry Orchard happens its because the cherry orchard’s getting sold. Or The Seagull happens because someone kills the seagull and they kinda go crazy. As you can tell from the film, that strong plot-driven narrative is never a part of it.

You were far younger when you wrote this, but obviously Barry’s interest in it emerged way later; were you initially hesitant to let an expression of ideas that were perhaps part of your own former self be filmed? 

People actually approached me about the piece early on — and they connected with the story, but they really wanted to make it a New York story or a Chicago story or some city other than Miami. Any time that was the beginning of a conversation I kind of just stopped. It didn’t make any sense. Because by the time this ultimately came around, I’d collaborated with other artists for so long, you kind of know when someone’s bullshitting you or coming to you with something genuine. Barry got the script from the Borscht Film Festival, who I trusted enough to give it to them in the first place. The amazing thing about it is he understood the world I was coming from. He lived it himself.

You grew up in the same neighborhood. 

He’s a little older than I am so we had some crossover. We went to different high schools but the high school he went to is literally across the street from my old house. I don’t mean figuratively. I mean I can look out the window from my bedroom and see the high school he went to. We grew up in the same neighborhoods and never knew each other.

When I saw Moonlight and (mistakenly) thought In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was something that may have been performed in front of a live audience, I was refreshed by how fluid the film was compared to other film adaptations of theater, which oftentimes suffer from an unimaginative structural flatness. Do you think you can successfully capture theater in film adaptations?

I’ve seen it. It doesn’t happen often. You have to look at the piece and think, this was the play, and here are its limits of what plays can do, and here are the limits of what film can do. I always say this to my students: If you’re trying to make us believe we’re in Baghdad, right at the fall of Uday and Kusay, you’re doing it wrong. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo [by Rajiv Joseph] is one of my favorite plays, but not because it makes me feel like I’m in Baghdad. It’s because it’s a study in these characters who are there — it opens up their world in a way. If you can do that, you’re golden. But if you’re trying to give me, “There’s the sand, there’s a giraffe coming onstage,” that’s not what plays do well. Why don’t you just let a film do that? Conversely, I think that play, which is a really good play, could be filmed wonderfully, but in a much quieter, more exact way of showing what the world was like in a way we can feel immersed in it. You don’t want to start lobbing stories up just because you liked it in one medium. We’ve got so many books to film lately — and of the ones that do make it across, my favorite is The Talented Mr. Ripley. When I went back to the book, though, they’re not the same, and I’m happy for that.

The greatest service you can do to a preexisting work is to be disloyal to it.

Or be loyal to it in that medium. The intense wordplay going on in Patricia Highsmith’s book is not the beauty that we were going to see in Matt Damon and Jude Law sitting in the bathtub. That’s different. Maybe I’m just lazy, but everything doesn’t need to be adapted.

I’ve been thinking of this conceptually in conjunction with and in contrast to Boyhood; had this used the same actor over however many years to depict Chiron, it wouldn’t have had the potency of each of those actors capturing a cohesive essence through physiques and experiences that are entirely different. The physical presentations of these characters feel thematically quintessential.

The original structure of the script intended to chart how different events make us another person, but how some things remain the same. That was very important to me. When Barry took that and structured it into this straightforward narrative, still in three chapters, I think it was important for him to tell the story with three different people. You were not supposed to feel like it was one actor playing this part — it was supposed to feel like different actors, but they somehow maintained a similar thread, mostly because they had the same weight on them. People who aren’t you can see pictures of you throughout your life and go, “Wow, you were going through that goth phase,” or whatever it is that you were doing at that moment, but at that time you’re still carrying that same weight. For me, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was just a personal project — I was trying to figure out my life around it. The difference shooting in this short period of time is to capture those chapters, but the thing that’s propelling us through this is the weight of this person, what he’s carrying, trying to discover who he is in an environment that is clearly hostile to that.

In a community that itself exists within a larger environment that is hostile to black men.

To me now, the macro, micro, personal and even spiritual are actually what we’re tracking in the piece — leading to the moment where he’s going to find his innermost self. We see glimmers of it, these little slivers of moonlight in each section. Those moments allow a way in to the chapters that again feel like we’re following the stages of this life in a more poetic way than in the more natural, gritty, granular way that you could if you shot one actor over the course of twelve years.

Both the original piece and the film appear to focus on alienation — for the queer child derided within his microcosmic community in Miami — and then more overarching racialized American oppressions. Chiron ultimately sculpts himself to appear as a different person, and I was wondering how you wanted that focus on image to relate to those themes.

The original script is full of questions that I’m still wrestling with, and a lot of people are, which is why it’s important. One of the things that’s become glaringly important to me is that any psychologist or psychiatrist worth their salt will ask you whose love you most desired as a child. And whoever that person is, whoever’s attention you most craved, is usually who you mold yourself to be. Chiron tries to become the thing he craved or loved or wanted to be loved by. That is true of any of us. That’s why the transformation seems like a huge jump — when we see who he’s trying to emulate. The problem with that emulation is, you are not that person. And though you crave their love, you becoming them does not actually give you that love, so you’re still missing out on the fundamental thing you want most, which is why we see him trying to perform this identity.

I think a lot of young black men suffer from this. Whose attention and love were they most craving, growing up usually in a home that has tentative relationships with masculinity and manhood because of prison, the high rate of death for black men in general — especially black young men, which means their children grow up without fathers. Black hypermasculinity is less trying to hyper-masculate self against an emasculation that’s happening — sure that’s happening, too — but it’s also about craving attention and making yourself into a thing you most love, into an idea of who is not here. And what Barry does — this is more Barry than the original script — you see Chiron come undone [at one point], and Trevante Rhodes does that so well. Instantly, he is a teenage boy, trying to have his first intimate conversation with somebody, and you’re watching this grown man undo himself.

That’s where you see such a striking discontinuity between the emotional and what’s being performed and portrayed by the physical. 

It happens more often than we think, we just don’t get to see it. We don’t often get to see that moment where someone has to actually take off the avatar that they’ve put on to protect themselves, to survive in the world that they think they need to. And then you see instantly what they are actually after. The piece is speaking to how intersectionality is, at its crux, based on these human elements we all know. Sure they are accelerated and heightened and tightened by oppression, race, class, sexuality, but at the end of the day you can see a person really trying to dig through all of that in order to get to one thing. And the film does it in a way that doesn’t go, “Here’s this intersectional element.” You just feel it.

You catch so many layers in a gesture, in the specificity of how the actors played this role.

I’m very close friends with André Holland; I’ve known him for a long time. His acting to me is always sublime, and then to get both of them, and Trevante who I know less, but who’s one of the best actors I know, to get both of them in the same shot in a piece telling a story particularly of moments of my own life — you couldn’t ask for anything more. Specifically because of that subtlety — who has that ability?!