Steppenwolf regular McCraney among 24 MacArthur Fellows
By Hedy Weiss Theater Critic September 24, 2013 11:04PM
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Updated: October 26, 2013 6:25AM
Tarell Alvin McCraney, the 32-year-old playwright, actor, director and Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member, was on his way to the airport for a flight to New Haven, Conn., a few weeks ago, when he received a phone call from Cecilia Conrad, vice president of the MacArthur Foundation and director of its Fellows Program (more widely known as “the genius awards”).
Conrad was calling to tell him he was one of this year’s 24 recipients of the no-strings-attached gift of $625,000 dispersed over five years.
“I thought somebody was playing a very elaborate trick on me,” confessed McCraney, whose dramatic triptych “The Brother/Sister Plays” (a richly poetic weave of West African Yoruban mythology and Delta area mysticism) and “Head of Passes” (a post-Katrina riff on the Book of Job), have both been produced at Steppenwolf.
“The crazy thing was that I was headed to Yale University where I was one of three playwrights to receive the inaugural Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize — a no-strings award of $150,000,” said McCraney. “It wasn’t until my brother in Miami FedExed me the official letter that I really believed it, and even then I was a bit suspicious.”
McCraney, who lives out of suitcases and is constantly in transit between theaters in London, Chicago, Miami and beyond, plans to “deposit the money in a 401(k) account,” but mostly it will serve “as invaluable focus money.”
“Rather than flying around trying to make a living doing three or four projects at once, I’ll now be able to take my time and concentrate on one,” said McCraney, who grew up in Miami’s inner-city Liberty City neighborhood, graduated from the New World School of the Arts High School there, and earned degrees from Chicago’s Theater School at DePaul University and the Yale School of Drama.
Until March of 2014 McCraney will be busy overseeing his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” to be mounted by a touring company making stops in the U.K., Miami and at New York’s Public Theatre. He also is working on a new play inspired by “Old Rosa,” a novel about a mother and son by Reinaldo Arenas, the late Cuban writer.
Among the other MacArthur Fellows are:
◆ C. Kevin Boyce, 39, a paleobotanist who has spent the past decade at the University of Chicago but recently moved with his wife and three toddlers to Stanford University’s Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences.
“I spend a lot of my time looking at two things: living plants and how they work, and the best-preserved plant fossils from all over the world. What interests me in their evolutionary process is where they branched off from a common ancestor, and what the anatomy of individual fossils tells us about how they’ve functioned in different climates. I am fascinated by the shapes and forms of leaves.”
Boyce hasn’t figured out how he’ll use the MacArthur award yet, but said, “When I told my wife the news she said she had loved me anyway.”
◆ Kyle Abraham, 36, a Pittsburgh-bred choreographer whose work “The Radio Show” will be performed Feb. 20-23, 2014, at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre. The piece uses an eclectic mix of classic soul, hip-hop, R & B, call-in radio excerpts and experimental music and will feature his six-member Abraham.in.Motion company, which includes Abraham himself.
For a complete look at the 2013 Fellows visit macfound.org/fellows.