Taylor Barfield on Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight
In his first interview after winning the Oscar for best picture, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins gave credit to the man whose script inspired the film. A reporter asked him, “why do you think this story resonated so deeply with audiences?” Jenkins responded, “Tarell [Alvin McCraney] put so much truth in what he wrote, in the piece In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue…I tried to take that truth and manifest it on screen. And the only thing I can speak to is that whatever authenticity, whatever fire this guy had in his belly, people saw it and they reflected the same fire in their belly.” Although Moonlight has thrust McCraney into the Hollywood spotlight, he has been one of the hottest names in the theater world for almost a decade. After collecting a cache of awards including a Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, a Whiting Award, and a MacArthur Genius Grant, securing productions at a who’s who of theaters across the country, and most recently, assuming the playwriting chair at the Yale School of Drama, McCraney has cemented himself as a force in the American theater.
…their ancestors loved them and protected them and set them free.
Abiodun Oyewole’s “The Bonfim”
Much of the critical attention to McCraney’s work, particularly with regard to Moonlight, focuses on his attention to race, sexual orientation, and social status. Although a sizable portion of his work deals with the lives of black people, queer black men, and people affected by social inequalities, most critics only gloss over the playwright’s nuanced relationship to religion and myth and the image structures that invoke them. Most frequently, McCraney conjures water. Watch a world created by McCraney and you will see oceans, bayous, rivers, rain, tears, baths, sweat, and showers. You will encounter characters drowned by their sorrows or simply drowned. The denizens of his plays dream of water crushing them, comforting them, freeing them, awakening them sexually, or ushering them into adolescence. In 2007, McCraney contributed to a play about Hurricane Katrina called The Breach: A Story About the Drowning of New Orleans. In Choir Boy (2012), a young, gay boy at an elite, all-black private school is beaten in a locker room shower followed by the repeated hymn verse, “Wash all my sins away!” In Head of Passes (2013), a play inspired by the Book of Job, a storm rages at the point where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico and destabilizes the precarious land underneath a family’s home.
Of all his dramatic works, however, McCraney is best known for his trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays (2009) set in San Pere, a fictional housing project in humid Louisiana at the beginning of the Millennium. Water plays a key role in each of the trilogy’s plays. In In the Red and Brown Water, a young Elegba dreams of bone people walking alongside him “on the floor of the waters” and his dear friend, Oya,“lay[s] on top of that water. Brown skin in the red water.” He wakes up “sweating…and wet Low down, like that water…wet…” In The Brothers Size, tears fall from an incarcerated man’s eyes as he wails for his brother. And finally, in Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, a young man inherits his father’s penchant for dreams and sees a mysterious man “talking to [him] slowly i’ th’ water n rain crying.”
All of the plays in the trilogy blend the stories of black folk living in San Pere with Yoruban mythology, an ancient polytheistic belief system native to modern-day Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. Yoruban religion spread quickly throughout the Caribbean and the Americas due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and although many Yoruban people held onto their traditions from Africa, European cultural influences radically shifted how African peoples could approach their spiritual practices. Slaves were forced to either transform the ways in which they worshipped or lose their traditions, their Gods, and their language altogether. As Abiodun Oyewole writes in his poem, “The Bonfim,” “But they were slaves during the day / At night they were free / To be African people / So they built their church at night / Under the stars and moonlight / And their ancestors loved them / And protected them / And set them free.” Over time, enslaved Yorubans began to adapt religious practices into the frameworks of Christian worship in order to maintain their cultural memory under layers of European belief systems.
In an interview with McCarter Theater for the premiere of The Brother/Sister Plays, McCraney described the reasons for tapping into Yoruban mythology. “The Yoruba have been with me, around me, even when I didn’t know it,” he said. “From a young age I found myself running into people—Lucumi, Santero, in Miami—who would tell me that I am a child of Yemoja or that the Deities speak to me strongly.” Yemoja, the Orisha (deity) that McCraney claims he is associated with, is the mother goddess of water. Solimar Otero and Toyin Falola describe Yemoja in the introduction to their book, Yemoja: Gender, Sexuality, and Creativity in the Latina/o and Afro-Atlantic Diasporas. They write, “Yemoja is a deity known in Yoruba-based Afro-Atlantic religious cultures for her ability to dominate natural phenomena, especially aquatic zones of communication, trade, and transportation such as oceans, rivers, and lagoons. She is also associated with women, motherhood, family, and the arts.” They also point out that Yemoja has been a subject of study for many Queer theorists. “Though often depicted as the eternal mother,” they write, “Yemoja can perform different kinds of gender roles, and she has the power to shift, change, and display an ambiguous sexuality in mythology and ritual.” Because of this, “Yemoja is believed to protect gays and lesbians.” Simultaneously mother, protector, healer, and transporter, Yemoja presides over family and the arts. Yet within these fixed identities, her fluid nature makes her guardian of those who fall outside of rigid rules of sexuality and gender. Many of McCraney’s characters, including Moonlight’s protagonist, are gay, black men. In a world that continues to ostracize young, black men, the presence of Yemoja (and repeated images of water in its many forms) represent the opportunity for family-like connectedness, love, and protection.
But the presence of water in McCraney’s work is doubly fluid, evoking at once Yemoja and her realm as well as its associations in the Christian imaginary, from the destructive power of the Great Flood to the cleansing properties of Baptism. In his book, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues that “anyone who analyzes black literature must do so as a comparativist, by definition, because canonical texts have complex double formal antecedents, the Western and the black.” McCraney imbues his water imagery with multi-valent meanings that extend to both its roots in African culture as well as Christian and European influences. In his work that primarily focuses on the complex and often contradictory realties of black life in America, McCraney blends largely forgotten African traditions and Judeo-Christian practices to reflect the aesthetic and spiritual mélange that mark African American experience in the United States. To ignore either European or African influence, in McCraney’s plays at least, would betray the sheer complexity of contemporary African American life.
…the water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.
As in most of McCraney’s works, water saturates the world of Moonlight. The film contains three chapters, each following the main character Chiron at a different transformative moment. Like Jenkins and McCraney, Chiron grows up in the Liberty Square housing project in Miami when the crack epidemic of the 1980s threatens to drown the community, including Chiron’s mother. In the first chapter, entitled “Little,” Chiron is a boy so small that even his only friend, Kevin, calls him “Little.” Chiron meets a drug-dealer named Juan, who serves as the young boy’s father figure for much of the beginning. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Juan takes Chiron to the beach and helps him float in Miami’s crystal water. “Feel that right there?” Juan asks. “You in the middle of the world, man.” The water here stands in for a world much larger than the confines of Liberty Square. “Let me tell you something, man,” Juan says. “There are black people everywhere, remember that, ok? No place you can go in the world ain’t got no black people…” Just as Yemoja is the deity of family, Chiron becomes a part of an infinitely large family of people who look just like him. Through this baptism of sorts, Chiron discovers his spiritual connection not to the universal Christian church but to every other black person in the world. Here, suffused with the weight of Yoruban mythology and Christian practice, Juan’s swimming lesson teaches Chiron, but also prepares him to navigate his greater environment. Afterwards Juan says, “at some point you got to decide yourself who you gonna be” and whoever that self is has to face a cosmically vast world.
In the second chapter, entitled “Chiron,” the young boy has grown into a teenager. Juan has been killed, and Chiron searches for his place in a community that grows increasingly violent. His mother descends deeper into drug addiction, and the boys around him strut like roosters, looking to prove they are the strongest in the yard. In the middle of the chapter, Chiron steals away at night to a Miami Beach. The place where he once felt connected to the world around him becomes the place for deep introspection and much needed solitude, which Kevin unexpectedly interrupts. The two dance around their emotions until eventually they discuss crying. “You cry?” Chiron asks. Kevin coolly responds, “Nah…what you cry about?” Chiron answers, “Shit, I cry so much sometimes, I feel like I’m just going to turn into drops.”
While in the first chapter, water connects Chiron to the larger world, here it stands in for the roiling ocean inside him. The teen is lonesome to the point of becoming his tears and, as Kevin suggests, “roll[ing] out into the water like all these other muhfuckas round here tryin’ to drown their sorrows.” Significantly, Chiron can only reveal this unspoken side of himself by the ocean, and in the isolation of the beach, Kevin accepts his friend’s sadness. This tender moment leads to Chiron’s first sexually intimate experience in the film. For this one moment, by the water and under moonlight, Chiron can be himself without the threat of violence from his community. He can admit he has emotions. He can defy the rigid codes of black masculinity.
In the second chapter’s climactic scene, one of Chiron’s tormentors forces Kevin to assault Chiron to prove that he is not as soft as everyone thinks his friend is. In the beating’s aftermath, a bloody Chiron dunks his head in ice water. He pulls his head out, blood, water, and sweat dripping from his face, and examines his reflection in the mirror. Again the image evokes baptism, and again it defies the full Christian meaning of the ritual. Chiron washes away the young man from the beach and fashions himself after the tough, hard, violent, and emotionally guarded image of black masculinity that will help him survive in his environment.
In the third chapter, entitled “Black,” the water images from the first two chapters collide as Jenkins introduces us to a muscle-strapped Chiron who has assumed the guise of a stereotypical, drug-slinging, young black man. Chiron has become a man defined by society’s expectations of men with dark, black skin; however, his inner emotional turmoil remains buried underneath his newly chiseled body. The chapter begins with Chiron, now nicknamed Black, waking up in a cold sweat after dreaming of his momma berating him as a child. In the next shot, echoing the scene from chapter two, he dunks his head in ice water to wash away the sweat from his nightmare and again gazes at himself in the mirror. As sweat and water drip down his face, the grown Chiron sees reflected the two irreconcilable aspects of his self: Black, armored against the hardness of the world, and Little, sensitive and brimming with the wounds of his childhood.
Later, water’s loving and familial connotations reappear when Kevin re-connects with Chiron. At Kevin’s house by the ocean, Chiron discovers that his identity is fashioned simultaneously by his relationship to the external world as well as his internal well of emotions. The relationship between these two forces is complex and contradictory. In the safety of Kevin’s house, Chiron again finds a space where he can be fluid and ungoverned by the world’s rigid dichotomies of hard-soft, straight-gay, masculine-feminine. There he can free himself from the preconceived traits that the wider world projects onto black men. He can be hard and gay, soft and black. And these contradictions can live harmoniously in one body.
…black boys look blue.
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Along with illustrating the complexity of African American life and its cultural antecedents, McCraney’s imagery provides multiple, cross-cultural frameworks for understanding Moonlight and his greater body of work. These complex mythic and religious frameworks help to usher audiences to the internal “authenticity” of Chiron’s story and disrupt its easy categorization as merely “black,” “gay,” “Christian,” “African,” “American.” His story represents a very specific slice of American life, yet, as the reporter alluded to at the Oscars, “the story resonated so deeply with audiences.” Bubbling underneath the lives and stories of individuals like Chiron, exists a vibrant spring of spiritual and mythic life waiting to be tapped.
In the first chapter, Juan tells Chiron a story about growing up in Cuba as a boy. Under the cover of darkness, an old woman tells Juan, “Look at you! Running around catching up all this light. In moonlight black boys look blue. You blue… That’s what I’m gone call you: Blue.” Juan’s story references the title of McCraney’s original script, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, but it also describes an optical phenomenon in which dark, black skin appears blue under moonlight. Despite pervasive stereotypes that often portray black men as emotionless and hard, McCraney and Jenkins’s film dares to show black people “in moonlight”—as fully-realized, emotional, and complex beings. The revelation in Moonlight, like in much of McCraney’s work, is not just that black people are more dimensional than those stereotypes—the ambition and burden of much black literature since its beginning—but that their potential defies any kind of neat categorization. Like Yemoja and the ocean she governs, black identity is deep, layered, ambiguous, and fluid.
Taylor Barfield is a freelance dramaturg and the associate artistic director at Collaboraction Theatre Company in Chicago. He is a doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Drama, where he is researching intertheatricality in contemporary African American drama.