'Moonlight' Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney On His TV Series 'David Makes Man'

5 hours ago

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The movie "Moonlight," which won the Oscar for best picture in 2017, was adapted from a script by my guest, Tarell Alvin McCraney. He and the film's director, Barry Jenkins, won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. McCraney is now the creator of the series "David Makes Man," where he's also an executive producer and writer. It's in its second season on OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network. Like "Moonlight," it begins with a boy growing up in the projects in a Miami neighborhood who's neglected by his crack-addicted mother, which echoes McCraney's childhood. But in "David Makes Man," the mother is able to get clean and stay sober. David is very smart and is one of two Black students in the gifted and talented class at his magnet school. He manages to get into prep school, where he's again one of the few Black students, and he's surrounded by students from families with money. The code-switching required, going back-and-forth from the projects to school, is confusing and complicated.

In Season 2, we fast-forward to David as an adult. He's become a successful businessman and is doing the marketing for a developer with political aspirations who's trying to revitalize the neighborhood where David grew up. But some people see David as just the Black face for a development company trying to get zoning permission to tear down the projects, build a shopping mall and gentrify the neighborhood with no concerns about displacing the people who live there. Meanwhile, David is still haunted by the shame and trauma of his childhood.

Tarell Alvin McCraney is a graduate of what is now called the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, where he now chairs the playwriting program. When he was a student at the Yale School of Drama, he became August Wilson's assistant. In 2013, McCraney won a MacArthur Fellowship, aka the Genius Award.

Tarell Alvin McCraney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you back on our show. The last time we spoke, "Moonlight" had just been released. The film since won three Oscars, including yours for best adapted screenplay. How has your life changed since then?

TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY: First of all, thanks for having me back. And it was lovely speaking to you then, and I've since become a fan, so thanks so much.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, thank you.

MCCRANEY: You know, it's really interesting. After the Academy Awards, you know, a lot of opportunities sort of showed up at my doorstep, and I kind of, you know, didn't take a lot of them.

GROSS: Why not?

MCCRANEY: To this moment, I don't fully know. I do know some of it had to do with just growing up waiting for the other shoe to drop, growing up anticipating, you know, the bear around the corner, as some specialists will say, you know? You grew up with a lot of trauma, you grew up with a lot of disappointment and not feeling protected, you kind of think, oh, well, when this good thing happens, it's only in - you know, it's in service of this really bad thing that's about to come. And so I wasn't really spending a lot of time just feeling great about the accomplishment.

My best friend will tell you - my best friend, Glenn Davis, who actually was just named artistic director at Steppenwolf recently, is - you know, was with me the night at the Academy Awards. And, of course, you know, we've been best friends for 20 years, so I wanted him with me everywhere. And we get to the, you know, the Governors Ball and the Vanity Fair party. And I'm like - I must have been there for 15 to 20 minutes before I just was like, I got to go home. And I left. I left the (laughter) Vanity Fair party with all these, you know, amazing things happening and stories to tell. But I couldn't - there was just nothing - I wasn't feeling excited. I was feeling scared and nervous and out of place and - yeah.

GROSS: It - this reminds me so much of David in "David Makes Man" in the sense that - I mean, he's very different from you, but he, like you, seems haunted by the trauma of the past and is having, like, difficulty getting past that.

MCCRANEY: Yeah. No, the - I mean, the - it's interesting that, you know, as a young person, when you grow up in neighborhoods like that in Homestead or in Miami or in New York, everybody's like, oh, you got to get out of this life. You got to get out of where you grow up from. And they - that's so instilled in your mind that by the time you turn around, you don't even realize that all of your aspirations are to get away from the place that made you or helped guide you into the person you are. And if you're running on that autopilot, you turn around and you don't even know that you're part of, you know, decimating an entire culture and experience that was there. And so that, to me, was so important to engage that because that's exactly how I felt. I felt like, oh, you know, right after we made "Moonlight," the projects that we shot it in, that Barry and I grew up in and around are no longer there.

GROSS: Oh, so they've been torn down to create a more gentrified neighborhood?

MCCRANEY: They are what they call a multiuse facility now. So they have, you know, mixed housing with some affordable housing, some market price, some - but all of the - and that is - that was one of the oldest projects in the country. It was built in 1926 and - certainly the largest. And, you know, we shot - we filmed this movie here, and then, all of a sudden, you know, it became really important for the county and everybody to redevelop that neighborhood. And it felt like, wait, whoa. Did we - like, by shining a light on this, did we do something? And of course we didn't. At the same time, like, the intentional - you know, my next thought was, well, I need to make sure I preserve all the culture around here as much as possible, all the life that was here and is still here as much as possible.

GROSS: I was reading that there's something now called climate gentrification in Liberty City, where you grew up and where "David Makes Man" was shot and also where "Moonlight" was shot. That's in an elevated area. And with all the storms and the flooding in South Florida, an elevated area is, like, safer from climate change and that that's one of the reasons why Liberty City has been gentrified.

MCCRANEY: Well, realtors will deny it. They'll say, no, these areas just have good zoning laws or rights. And I was like, well, they've had those same zoning permits and strictures for years. You know, they've - my grandparents have been there since 1954. So, you know, my father's lived there all his life. You know, I lived there for 20 years of my life. There certainly - those zoning laws haven't changed. And the ways in which you can build a house there hasn't shifted. What has?

And it absolutely is the - what we call king tide flooding, you know, where there's a full moon and the sea comes up through the street in places like South Beach and is just there, even without the rain. And then compound that with the rain and a full moon, right? That kind of flooding is almost impossible for those neighborhoods that are close to the ocean and to the bay to keep out, to combat. So, yeah, this slow, quote-unquote, "creep" towards the elevated areas that are 6 feet, 7 feet, 8 feet above sea level, people have been talking about it for years, and people have been talking about it in Liberty City for years. But, you know, it's only now starting to make national headlines.

GROSS: One of the similarities between you and your character David is, like we said, the trauma. You know, David's mother was crack addicted. She gets sober in the series and is really a kind of changed person. But for you, like, your mother never made it to that, and she died of complications from AIDS. And how old were you when she died?

MCCRANEY: Twenty-two. There's actually two differences. I mean, you know, my mother had a crack addiction, but also suffered from severe depression and undiagnosed and was rarely offered any access or resources to that. And I think David isn't addicted to a substance but has a kind of addiction to this chaos because that's all he knows. And so when he's triggered - right? - he goes into this kind of fugue state where he's just really - he uses all of his passion, all of his imagination to make these really big, dangerous decisions. And that was really important to me because I do that more than - I've not been - you know, I don't think I have a substance abuse. I don't really drink. But I sometimes will throw myself into these really scary situations and powerfully chaotic situations in order to make my life feel like it's normal.

GROSS: Wait. Can I stop you there?

MCCRANEY: Sure.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of what you're talking about?

MCCRANEY: Yeah. Like, all of a sudden, I need to run a playwriting program and write, you know, a television show. And, you know, for example, I remember one time I was flying back and forth from Miami to New York to LA, you know, every two days in order to work. And that might sound great, right? People are like, oh, that's amazing. That's an amazing life to lead. But I was getting sick all the time. I was - my anxiety was really high. I wasn't eating very well. I wasn't taking care of myself. I was just throwing myself at the work. And so in a capitalist society, we think, oh, that's normal. That's what you do - until you realize that I'm not enjoying anything. People are like, well, what do you do for fun? I was like, what do you mean?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCRANEY: What are you talking about? Like, why are you skipping out on the Vanity Fair party with Halle Berry and, like - you know, there are people there that I've just loved my entire life. And then you compound that with, like, just, you know - not just, but American racism. So I've got to deal with the microaggressions and the sort of surveillance society we live in consistently, constantly, while I'm also combating my own frustrations about not being - you know, this flight's delayed. So now I'm frustrated. And I can't act frustrated because if I act frustrated, I'm probably going to get shot five times in the back - right? - or put on the no-fly list. So I got to be calm about that. And so I'm stuffing down all of who I am - not enjoying anything, not sustaining relationships, not contacting friends, not anything - in order to do these amazing things that make me feel like my life is normal.

GROSS: Was it also about giving you a sense of, like, a positive identity? Like, I have achieved this. I'm not just my past. I'm not just, like, the trauma-stricken child. I have these achievements. I have these awards.

MCCRANEY: Yes and no. I mean, I think the part that's absolutely right that I will underline is it gives me a sense of worth, right? I am - because often, I am - I was told that I'm not worth much, right? I'm Black. I'm queer. I'm in this world. My body has been attacked. My person has been attacked. All the things that come natural to me - the way I walk, the way I speak - have been told that they were worthless or less than. And that comes from, you know, societal femmephobia, anti-Blackness, you name it, right? And so because I was told that for so long, I have to do these things that are beautiful. I have to make these things that are amazing. I have to make these things that are compelling and touching and - you know, and the rewards are great and good. But they - but, you know, you start to learn that those are never enough, right?

People telling you that you're great and good, they're never enough. You still keep chasing. I got to make another thing. I got to make something more beautiful, more touching, more human. There was a time that my - I started with a therapist. And she was like, look; I can't technically make you do anything. But if you keep doing this, I do have the ability to write to your employers and say, like, hey, I don't think this person should be working right now. And I just think you should know that. And I was like, oh, yeah. That's - if she's willing to go that far, I need to take stock because I'm clearly not looking at how ragged I'm running myself.

GROSS: Did you just stop? Or did you just, like, cut back a little bit?

MCCRANEY: I just stopped a couple of times. I just stopped. I kind of just, like - and - but that...

GROSS: But did that mean telling people, like, sorry, I'm not going to meet the deadline, sorry, you're not going to have the play that I promised I was going to write?

MCCRANEY: Yeah, lots of that. But - or I would just finish everything and go, nope, don't ask me for anything else.

GROSS: Yeah.

MCCRANEY: Or I can't do this anymore or setting deadlines of, like, yo, I'm not - that's - you know, this is it. I'm not interested in anything further than this, or, you know, my engagement is thus. And, you know, I was trying - I was running a community program here in Miami and trying to do that and run the program at Yale and do an outreach program in LA. And, you know, it was just - it got to a point where I said, you know, I really want to take stock in the - you know, the intimate and how to make that epic. And there's a part of me that knows that this is - that, you know, I was given a strength, right? However, I arrived here, there is a - I do have an ability to do a thing and do it well for myself, right? And I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to create and make work.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tarell Alvin McCraney. He created the series "David Makes Man," which is now on Season 2 on the Oprah Winfrey Network. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EASY LIFE'S "NIGHTMARES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tarell Alvin McCraney. He won an Oscar, along with Barry Jenkins, for Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie "Moonlight," which also won the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture. McCraney is the creator and executive producer of the series "David Makes Man," which is now in its second season on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

David, in your series, and the main character, Chiron, in "Moonlight" - they were exposed to violence, growing up in the projects. And it sounds like violence is something you were exposed to, too. There was a person in your life, kind of like in "Moonlight," who was both a drug dealer and your mother's boyfriend and a kind of father figure to you, who was shot and killed. This might be too personal to ask, but in addition to witnessing violence, were you the victim of it?

MCCRANEY: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I mean, that's not personal. It's in - it's in everything. I mean, in "Moonlight," the - you know, it's so funny because I remember Barry called me a couple of times and wrote to me or maybe texted me a couple of times asking me about certain scenes, you know, certain moments and going, wait, did this really happen? Or do you remember writing this? And most of the time I would say, no, I don't remember writing it. I remember feeling it. I remember going through it. I remember when it happened.

And oftentimes, folks, you know, talk about the film or even the television show and will think about the fantastic parts and go - or the parts that they feel are the most naturalistic and think, oh, well, this really happened, and that didn't. And I have to correct them sometimes. Like, the thing that they don't - that feels so amazing, that couldn't possibly have happened - that actually happened. So...

GROSS: Like what?

MCCRANEY: For example...

GROSS: Yeah.

MCCRANEY: Well, because everyone is like, well, did Kevin really befriend you one day and then walk into the spill-out area and, you know, play a game called Knock Down, Stay Down, where he punched you over and over again and asked you to stay down? I was like, yeah, absolutely, that happened.

GROSS: This was in "Moonlight."

MCCRANEY: Yeah, that absolutely happened. That absolutely - that's - like, as far as I know, kids still play that game, right? And yeah, he even apologized and even said to stay - he's like, stay - look, just stay down. If I hit - like, if I hit you, just stay down, and then they'll stop, right? And to me that - you know, that was really - it was a betrayal 'cause I was like, well, why must I, like, allow myself to be humiliated and harmed in this way in order for, you know, you all to have a great time or feel better about yourself? Like, what about that is necessary for me?

MCCRANEY: It must have been a very confusing world to grow up in, code-switching between living in the projects and going to a magnet school and going to a prep school. And, like, in "David Makes Man," what you need to do to get respect in the projects is if somebody pushes you, you'd better either push back or punch him because otherwise you're going to lose respect. But in school, if somebody pushes you and you push back or punch him, you're going to get suspended. That's, like, not acceptable behavior. And that - did you go through that kind of confusion growing up, like, having to completely change the rules, depending on where you were, in order to succeed or to just, like, get enough respect so that you can survive?

MCCRANEY: I don't know if it was confusing as much as it was exhausting. And I say that, and I really mean that. And it's still exhausting, the social kind of interactions of all - I mean, everybody code-switches in some ways and I think - and even going to - you know, even going from living in Homestead, which is, you know, outside of Miami and living in Liberty City and then going to school in the suburbs and then going to a magnet school or going to school in the inner city - like, every single place had its own, you know, code of conduct or its rules - right? - for respect and respectability.

Even now, there's a respectability politic that - you know, sometimes, you know, when people are like, well, when you deal with the cops, you should deal with them in this way or don't stand up for your rights or you should stand up for your rights - like, it's so exhausting the amount of, like, you should do X in order to, you know, survive, but it becomes such a part of you. It becomes such a habit, this switching to survive that you don't remember to turn it off, and you start doing it everywhere. You start doing it at the doctor's office. You start doing it with your intimate partners. And at some point, you forget to just be. You forget to allow your most intimate self to come forward because you're trying to figure out how to survive a moment that isn't about life or death.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here, because it's time for us to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tarell Alvin McCraney. He created the series "David Makes Man," which is now in Season 2 on the Oprah Winfrey Network. And he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the movie "Moonlight." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Tarell Alvin McCraney. The 2016 film "Moonlight" was adapted from his script. He and Barry Jenkins won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the film "Moonlight" won for Best Picture. McCraney created the series "David Makes Man" and serves as an executive producer and writer. It's now in its second season on OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network.

You know, we've been talking about, like, childhood trauma and kind of carrying that and the chaos of childhood into adult life and what you've been doing to try to work your way out of that. Your character in "David Makes Man" really lives in his head, and he actually sees people who aren't there. He sees his dead father figure who sometimes gives him good advice and sometimes bad advice. But he literally sees him and talks with him. And it's disturbing to him that this happens because he knows he's dead and yet he's appearing to him. And it happens with - he sees his younger brother when his younger brother isn't there. And I'm wondering - I imagine you've lived very much in your head for most of your life. And I'm wondering if your imagination ever went that far as literally seeing people as if they were there?

MCCRANEY: I don't know. I don't think so. I do - what I do is something very similar, though. I imagine people passing away because I was - when I was growing up, I was used to, you know, coming - I came home and, you know, Blue had passed away. And I - you know, my - I had lost a great aunt. And even this - through COVID, we lost two - I lost my mother's sister and my grandfather's sister in - within a week's time of each other. And so death was so prevalent in my life that I just built this really strange habit of going, oh, I got a call that this person really close to me is now not with us anymore. And I would just imagine what that scenario was like. And I would go through the whole entire process of feeling it, knowing it, trying to take it in, trying to figure out what I would do next and imagining it.

GROSS: Was the purpose, like, a test for yourself, like, can I survive this? Like, say this person I love dies. Can I survive this? What would I need to do to survive?

MCCRANEY: It would - it's stay ready. Stay ready. Chaos is all around us. This is what happens. Stay ready. And it was a test to figure out, like, how much - I knew I loved you or I cared about you if I had - if you'd gone through that process in my mind.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned earlier that your mother suffered from undiagnosed depression. How old were you when you realized that? And did it help you understand and forgive her, knowing that she had an untreated mental health issue?

MCCRANEY: Oh, I had to be 13. And the therapist at the magnet school that I was at, at Mays Middle in Goulds, said, you know, I think you might be depressed. And I said, oh, maybe. And then they started telling me - I will never forget Dr. Sands (ph). Mrs. Sands said, I think you might be depressed. Here are some things that you're doing that, you know - that happens when we're depressed or sad. What's going on at home? And I thought, oh, no, my mom is just like that. I can't be depressed. My mom is exactly like this - withdrawn sometimes, sometimes really forward, sometimes really outwardly affectionate, and then sometimes just, you know, inconsolable, moody, sad, distant.

And so I realized - I was like, oh, well, we both have it, whatever it is. And it just became easier. I - and it also happened that that year she was 31 and I was 13, and I just thought that was really cool. So I just felt like - it just made it easier for me to always identify like, oh, no, we are connected in this way. And forgive her - just - it wasn't even a matter of forgive her. I understood her. And at that point, it just became easier to just be there and be a part of it. Now, there were things that were still hurtful, of course. But, you know, it just made it simpler for me to - it made it - there was no gulf between where I couldn't recognize who she was.

GROSS: Did you talk with her about that and say, look, I think you're suffering from depression, you should get...

MCCRANEY: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Help for that? What was her reaction?

MCCRANEY: I mean, you know, she sort - there were two things. One, she was very receptive to say, you know, sometimes I don't feel great. But then the other part was, well, I'm not an addict, so this doesn't matter, right? And so she was in that part of denial that she couldn't quite, you know, come to terms with at that moment. I mean, later, she did go into rehab a few times. And - but at that moment, she just - you know, there was a 13-year-old telling - diagnosing her with depression and telling her that she was a drug addict.

GROSS: Did you have to keep things like that a secret, if not in the projects, when you were in school?

MCCRANEY: Well, I didn't. And I - and there are parts of me that wished that I had because we almost ended up in the foster system because of it. And we were - you know, when people started realizing that - because people would say, well, why don't you ever have, like, clean clothes? You wear similar - you wear, like, the same thing every day. And I would go, well, we're not - we don't have a - you know, we can't go to the washing machine. We can't use a washing machine. We don't have any money. The lights are off or we don't - you know, can I call your mother? The phone's off. You know, well, what did you eat today? Well, we don't have a lot of food, so I ate when I got to school today.

And so when those - and so I wish more so that I had some ability to - and again, this is wishful thinking in hindsight. So it doesn't - it's just - it's like magic thinking. I wish I had some ability to take better care of us at the time, but I didn't. Because once - you know, once the school did find out, once the projects did find out, we - you know, they took us away from our mother. And some of that was great because, again, she had to go to - she went to rehab and had to focus on herself. But when we were taken away, we almost - you know, there are four of us, and we almost ended up in the foster care system. And, you know, that could have been worse. We - I thank God that we had some family members step up and take care of us at that time.

GROSS: Did you move in with them or did they move in with you?

MCCRANEY: No, we moved in with them. So my sister - my younger brother and sister moved in with my aunt, and I moved - my brother and I moved in with my dad and my grandparents.

GROSS: Did you become close with your father?

MCCRANEY: I wouldn't say close. I would say - I mean, we are closer now. But at that time, not really, because, again, you had this kid who was, again, 13, 14, used to surviving on their own, now being asked to follow new rules. And I did what I did - I do all the time, which is I just go, oh, what do I have to do to maintain peace in this place? Great. I'll do that, and then I'll still do what I want to do when I go to school. For instance, I signed myself up for the magnet school that I - the performance art school that I went to unbeknownst to him.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tarell Alvin McCraney. He created the series "David Makes Man," which is now on Season 2 on the Oprah Winfrey Network. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Tarell Alvin McCraney. He created the series "David Makes Man," which is now on Season 2 on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Was there any less code switching that you had to do in the performing arts school because you were dealing with people aspiring to be artists, and a lot of artists feel like they're different from other people? And I don't mean that like I'm better than, but just like they're on their own wavelength. And they understand other people who are on their own wavelength. And a lot of artists suffer from depression and understand what that is intuitively, even if they don't have the language.

MCCRANEY: Oh, well, it took me - I mean, no. There was still code switching. I mean, I still...

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Yeah. Yeah.

MCCRANEY: I mean, I went to - I was in school with, you know, the student - you know, with students who lived on Star Island. So there was still...

GROSS: Is that a wealthy community?

MCCRANEY: Yes. Sorry. Star Island is where Puff Daddy lives...

GROSS: Oh, OK (laughter). Say no more.

MCCRANEY: ...And Will Smith.

GROSS: Yeah.

MCCRANEY: And - yeah. And so it was not Liberty City. And so I was being bused into - you know, I was taking the train from Liberty City to this school that was small and intimate, but also filled with students who had been practicing their art all their lives but with tutors and had drivers show up at school to take them home. And I still, you know, would have to take a Jitney or a bus home.

GROSS: Did you have the kind of pressure that your character does of thinking, like, only one Black person is going to be allowed to succeed here, and it's got to be me?

MCCRANEY: Yes, not at my art school, but in an undergrad, for sure, and even in grad school. The more the elite the institution, the more that that's true. There was - there only graduated two Black men in my acting class in undergrad. And we started as a class of 50. We graduated a class of 20. And there were two Black men. I was one of them. And in the playwriting program at Yale, now known as the David Geffen School of Drama, I was the only Black person out of nine playwrights.

GROSS: That certainly increases the pressure, right?

MCCRANEY: Well, it just increases the - you know, it increases a whole bunch of things. It increases the ability to feel like you're in it for the actual art, right? Or rather, are you there to represent who you are as a person? I mean, there's a reason why I was August Wilson's assistant, because there was no other Black playwright in the program at the time.

GROSS: Well, talk a little bit about being August Wilson's assistant - at what point in his career? Was he - had he written "Fences," "The Piano Lesson," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"? Where was he?

MCCRANEY: Oh, yeah. He had - actually, he was working on his last play in the cycle of plays, "Radio Golf." And that was to premiere at Yale, which a number of his other plays had done previous - before they went onto success on Broadway or in other places. And I was his assistant. And I was a terrible assistant.

GROSS: Well, what were you expected to do? And why do you say you were terrible?

MCCRANEY: Well, I'm bad at keeping my own schedule, let alone, you know, keeping August Wilson's. And so I was sent to sort of help him maintain and manage his schedule with both Yale and the production. And I just was, you know, terrible at it. I was very bad at it. Narda Alcorn, who was the stage manager, you know, would help me out tremendously. But Mr. Wilson would need a haircut. And I would go, oh, OK, great. And it was like, no, yeah...

GROSS: (Laughter) You're not doing anything about it.

MCCRANEY: Yeah. You have to go find - you know? And then I would go, oh, yeah. OK. Cool. Great. Got it. And I would just go do it. And then, once, he sent me off to buy - and I think I - I don't know if I've ever told you this. But he sent me off - he would send me on these very strange errands. So he - the last one he sent me on was to go and buy an iPod for his daughter's birthday. And he gave me an envelope full of $500 worth of 20s and sent me to buy an iPod. And this is, like, you know, 2004 or '5. And so it's - you know, iPods aren't everywhere. And there's no Apple store. So I had to go all the way to Orange to get it. I get it. I come back. I go, here's your iPod. I got to go to class. I go to class. He calls me again. And he's like, hey, I need to talk to you about this iPod. It's not working.

And so I go to - and he's sitting outside smoking a cigarette. And it's, like, you know, 40 degrees outside. And I go, sir, I don't know much about iPods. I don't even have one. He goes, well, I saw your play. And, you know, you did some amazing things in it. You blew up things at the end, but that's just a young playwright thing. But you have music in it, and you always need music. So here's your iPod. And he bought - basically, he bought me my - he made me go buy my own iPod and gave it to me. And I kept that iPod for a long time, until I went to Sundance and it finally died. And I buried it there under a rock that has his name on it. But he - you know, he was just really generous with his time and his space, especially for early career artists and for his collaborators.

GROSS: That's a lovely story. What did you put on the iPod?

MCCRANEY: I put these spirituals, these Gullah Island spirituals on it. And I would listen to them all the time. And that actually inspired "Choir Boy."

GROSS: Good, I want to talk about "Choir Boy." And why don't you give us a brief description of the play.

MCCRANEY: "Choir Boy" centers around a young man named Pharus, who's the lead of Charles R. Drew Prep's prestigious glee club, which has won national acclaim for this high school. And Pharus, who is an effeminate young man, is trying to make sure that his voice and his way of making music is seen as not only prominent, but the way in which it needs to be done for the legacy of the school. And he's met with some challenges to his person through his classmates and the institution. And we - and even though he clearly is one of the brightest stars in the school, he - his light may get diminished because he's trying to do it his own way.

GROSS: Your grandfather was the minister of a Baptist church. Did you spend a lot of time in his church when you were growing up? Did you sing in a choir?

MCCRANEY: I did sing in the choir. I didn't sing in the choir at his church, but I did sing in the choir. I don't - I can't sing. I don't know why anybody would let me in their choir, but I did spend a lot of time in the choir. And I spent a lot of time in my grandfather's study. So when he would do - you know, study for his sermons and do research and read the Bible and scan, I would - spent a lot of time with him there.

GROSS: Did you read the Bible, too? Did you find beauty in the Bible?

MCCRANEY: Yes, still do.

GROSS: Do spirituals speak to you? I don't know if you're religious and if so, how much a part of your life that is. But I think spirituals and hymns, gospel music, that they have a universal message whether or not you are a believer in a God. There's songs about endurance. There's songs about resilience. There's songs about living in a world with something larger than yourself.

MCCRANEY: That's what all great art should do, is remind us that there's something larger than ourselves and that there is resilience and that there are different ways in which we engage it, but that we are more alike in our engagement than different.

GROSS: Oh, and let me just say, there's songs about death. I mean, so many hymns and spirituals are really about death.

MCCRANEY: And change.

GROSS: And change, yeah. And these are all themes that we've been talking about, you know, in the interview. So I want to play an excerpt of "Motherless Child" as sung in your play "Choir Boy." And the version we're going to use - 'cause there - it's not like there's a cast recording. The version we're going to use comes from The New York Times, which...

MCCRANEY: (Laughter, unintelligible).

GROSS: ...Had the wisdom to do a video of this.

MCCRANEY: Yeah.

GROSS: And so you can see the whole performance of this song on the New York Times' website at nytimes.com. So here's "Motherless Child," as performed in Tarell Alvin McCraney's play "Choir Boy."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALLACE SMITH: (Singing) Sometimes...

KYLE BELTRAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel.

SMITH: (Singing) ...I feel...

BELTRAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like...

SMITH: (Singing) ...Like a motherless child.

KYLE BELTRAN, JEREMY POPE, NICHOLAS L ASHE, GRANTHAM COLEMAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.

SMITH: (Singing) Sometimes...

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel...

SMITH: (Singing) ...I feel...

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like...

SMITH: (Singing) ...Like a motherless child.

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.

SMITH: (Singing) Sometimes...

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel...

SMITH: (Singing) ...I feel...

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like...

SMITH: (Singing) ...Like a motherless child...

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like a motherless child...

SMITH: (Singing) ...A long...

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) ...A long way from...

SMITH: (Singing) ...Long way from...

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) ...A long way from...

SMITH: (Singing) ...Home.

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like I'm a long way from home.

SMITH: (Singing) Sometimes...

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) ...I feel like...

SMITH: (Singing) ...I feel...

BELTRAN, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like...

SMITH: (Singing) ...Like a motherless child.

NICHOLAS L ASHE: (Singing) But I can hear my mother calling me. She's calling me.

KYLE BELTRAN, JEREMY POPE, WALLACE SMITH, GRANTHAM COLEMAN: (Singing) I can hear her calling me.

ASHE: (Singing) I can hear my mother's voice.

BELTRAN, POPE, SMITH, COLEMAN: (Singing) I can hear her calling me.

ASHE: (Singing) I can hear my mother's voice.

BELTRAN, POPE, SMITH, COLEMAN: (Singing) I can hear her call...

ASHE: (Singing) She's calling me.

BELTRAN, POPE, SMITH, COLEMAN: (Singing) ...But I'm a long way from home.

ASHE: (Singing) But I...

BELTRAN, POPE, SMITH, COLEMAN: (Singing) I can hear her calling me.

ASHE: (Singing) Won't you come on home, child...

BELTRAN, POPE, SMITH, COLEMAN: (Singing) I can hear her calling me.

ASHE: (Singing) ...Cross the water.

BELTRAN, POPE, SMITH, COLEMAN: (Singing) I can hear her call...

KYLE BELTRAN, WALLACE SMITH, JEREMY POPE, NICHOLAS L ASHE, GRANTHAM COLEMAN: (Singing) ...But I'm a long way from home.

JEREMY POPE: (Singing) True believer...

KYLE BELTRAN, WALLACE SMITH, NICHOLAS L ASHE, GRANTHAM COLEMAN: (Singing) True believer...

POPE: (Singing) True believer - yeah, yeah.

BELTRAN, SMITH, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) True believer...

POPE: (Singing) True believer...

BELTRAN, SMITH, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) True believer...

POPE: (Singing) Yes.

BELTRAN, SMITH, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) I'm a long way from home.

POPE: (Singing) I...

BELTRAN, SMITH, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) True believer...

POPE: (Singing) Yeah.

BELTRAN, SMITH, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) True believer...

POPE: (Singing) True believer...

BELTRAN, SMITH, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) True believer...

BELTRAN, SMITH, POPE, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) I'm a long way...

BELTRAN, SMITH, ASHE, COLEMAN: (Singing) ...From home.

POPE: (Singing) I'm a long way from home.

GROSS: That was "Motherless Child" as performed in my guest Tarell Alvin McCraney's play "Choir Boy." And again, if you want to see the whole song, go to the New York Times' website.

MCCRANEY: What I love is that you brought up that we don't have a cast recording because so many people are upset that we don't (laughter) have a cast recording.

GROSS: It's frustrating. You know, I'd love to have more that I could listen to at home.

MCCRANEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Some of it was performed on the Tonys, and that was great.

MCCRANEY: That was. And I think it would be great if they did a cast recording.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tarell Alvin McCraney. He created the series "David Makes Man," which is now in Season 2 on the Oprah Winfrey Network. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "BYE BYE BLACKBIRD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tarell Alvin McCraney. He won an Oscar along with Barry Jenkins for best adapted screenplay for the movie "Moonlight," which also won the 2017 Oscar for best picture. McCraney is the creator and executive producer of the series "David Makes Man," which is now in its second season on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

You also wrote a play called "Wig Out!", which is set in...

MCCRANEY: It's set in drag houses, yeah.

GROSS: And I read that you dated someone. Dated sounds like such an old-fashioned word, like you're going to the malt shop together and having an ice cream soda. But...

MCCRANEY: Well, some of it was that (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, OK (laughter). But that you dated somebody who lived in a drag house. And I wonder if that required, like, another form of code switching for you.

MCCRANEY: Listen. At this point, we should just assume everything does. You know what I mean? For me, and that's one of the things like I have to work on, is that I'm always doing it - and even in that moment, I absolutely had to because there were so many rules, you know, coming into a chosen family and dating someone in that chosen family, there was a fiercer protection. There were so many things that they would say right in front of me, like, oh, are you all [expletive]? Sorry. I know we're not supposed to say that online. But that's what they would ask me. And I'd like, I don't know, not yet, you know? And they'd be like, well, you need to do this, and you do do that. And that's my sister. And if she - and I'd be like, OK.

But ultimately, it was really important to me to write about the way in which, you know, I thought I understood and knew everything there was about, you know, queer life and didn't and was introduced to this to this this world via a person who was unbeknownst to me in the beginning of their transition. And that was just an incredible moment for me. And I just wanted to honor them. But, yeah, we don't do that play that often because it's - the world has changed so much since then. And like, you know, we - I would have to...

GROSS: And the language has changed so much since then.

MCCRANEY: Absolutely. We've got - we've made great strides that we - and we need to do more. And we need to protect Black trans women particularly, but trans women in general, way more than we do. And I think the - I love the fact that, like, it sounds crazy, but I love the fact that that play is outdated.

GROSS: Oh, no, I understand what you mean, because things have progressed. Things are - yeah.

MCCRANEY: We have language now. Like, now there are young people who are my age at the time who are dating, you know, people who are trans and non binary with the language to discuss it and understand it. And at the time, I didn't know - I didn't know and didn't have the language to discuss. And so I, you know, I love that. I love the fact that there's just - there may be less need to code switch - right? - because there's more transparency.

GROSS: When you were growing up - getting back to your childhood - did you have somebody like a younger brother who you had to protect, who you felt the responsibility for protecting?

MCCRANEY: Yeah, for sure. I have two younger brothers and a younger sister. I'm the oldest of four. And not just them. I mean, so, for example, I remember when I had - when I did get friends, I would not want to walk with my friends because I knew that if people, you know, we're going to target me for being queer, for being gay, I didn't want my friends to have to endure that too. So I would like, you know, just say, oh, meet me at this place - so that if I had to endure it, I'd have to endure it by myself.

And even as I got grown - I always remember I was walking with Andre Holland, who played Kevin in "Moonlight," we were in Harlem one time. And we were walking through a part of, you know, just the block boys. You know, Harlem is beautiful, but this one block was like the block boys are on it. And this was really early on in our relationship. We had to both be in our late 20s. And we were walking by. And I was like, oh, man, I don't want Dre to get heckled because I'm about to be, right? Like, I don't want him to have to have that. So I made some excuses, like, oh, I'll catch up with you. I'll walk this way. And I walked, you know, I walked through. And, you know, some people, you know, a couple of dudes said something, but nothing really egregious.

But I just realized I had gone through all of that to protect him, to make sure that he - his feelings weren't hurt or for him to be looped in with me. And I did that with my brothers and sisters all the time. I always was trying to stop them from getting the brunt of whatever it was.

GROSS: Well, this has just been so good to talk with you. I really appreciate it so much. And I wish you good health. And I wish you all good things.

MCCRANEY: Oh, same to you and yours. Thank you so much again. I appreciate the invitation.

GROSS: Tarell Alvin McCraney won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the film "Moonlight." He's the creator of the TV series "David Makes Man," which is now in its second season on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, spyware. We'll talk about how a private Israeli spyware company leased military-grade spyware to governments that were supposed to use it for tracking terrorists and criminals, but it was used to hack the phones of journalists, human rights activists, business executives and others. My guest will be Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.