Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney had a rough childhood — even if he didn’t know it.
“Get up, struggle every day, run through what feels like a war zone, get on the bus, sweat after packing lunches for two other kids that are not mine, struggling in school everyday, nodding off because I’m tired, then coming home battling through all that again — I thought that was the way of life,” he said at a recent screening of the pilot episode for his new television series, “David Makes Man,” at the DuSable Museum.
The show, which is heavily influenced by experiences and characters from McCraney’s early life, introduces audiences to the struggles — both in his head and out — of 14-year-old David, played by Akili McDowell.
David lives in a South Florida public housing project and has dreams of attending a prestigious high school. To survive, he must navigate being an older sibling with a sometimes absent parent while deciding whether to fend off offers from drug dealers to join street life. To thrive, David must perform well in school with the added pressure of being the only black boy in predominantly white classrooms.
It’s a deeply personal story for McCraney, a DePaul University graduate who has encountered great success before mostly white audiences and in mostly white institutions. McCraney’s accolades include award-winning work at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, on Broadway and even at the Academy Awards, which was criticized in 2016 for its lack of diversity (most notably in the trending Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite).
Of course, it was “Moonlight,” with its black cast and director and McCraney as screenwriter, that won three Oscars the next year. But McCraney revealed that even for “Moonlight,” concessions were made so that the vibrancy of South Florida wasn’t misread by audiences who couldn’t associate beauty with poverty.
And that’s how much of his 20-year career in theater and the arts has been, McCraney said — lacking in opportunities to share stories exactly as he intended.
With “David Makes Man,” McCraney sought out a network with a built-in audience that would recognize themselves and their communities in his work. He got his chance with one-time Chicago television host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who loved the pitch for “David Makes Man” so much she invited him to her OWN channel on the spot.
“When OWN said ‘yes’ it meant something different to me,” McCraney said. “Because this is an intimate conversation, I feel like I don’t want anyone thinking this is representative of all black people. It’s like, ‘No, there are 70 other stories on this network. David’s story is just David’s story.’ I didn’t want it to be only one in a room.”
The premiere of “David Makes Man” is at 9 p.m. Wednesday. It will join a lineup of other OWN shows with black leads and casts including “Queen Sugar,” “Greenleaf” and “The Haves and the Have Nots.”
Joining Winfrey’s network was also special for actress Alana Arenas, who plays David’s mother Gloria in “David Makes Man” and, like McCraney, is a graduate from DePaul and a Steppenwolf ensemble member. She and McCraney also attended the same arts school in Miami, Florida.
“A lot of my career I didn’t always feel like it was OK to be unapologetically myself,” Arenas said. “Going to ‘David Makes Man’ [is] literally the first time I’ve ever gone to work and felt celebrated every space I went. I never felt like I had to shrink and be less obvious.”
Even though McCraney spoke of a new freedom in creating “David Makes Man,” that’s not to say shooting the series was easy. Because so much of the work is informed by his own experiences, McCraney said “David Makes Man” forced him to relive some of his personal traumas.
In a particularly poignant moment on set with McDowell, McCraney and the teen actor began to cry. McDowell had asked a question about his character, who is coping with the loss of a dear friend. That character was based on a real-life drug dealer who stood in as a father figure to a young McCraney, teaching him to ride a bike, how to swim and how to grow up.
“And I said to Akili, ‘Sometimes I hear him or at least feel what he gave me and even to this day I check my own manhood against him.’
“And Akili shared a story that was intimate to him and I started crying because I didn’t want him going through his life chasing the ghost of a person who wasn’t there. I didn’t want that for him and I didn’t want it for me, but there we were these two people and we’re both looking down the barrel of this incredible piece that we’re doing trying to figure out how to talk about it,” McCraney said.
“David Makes Man” incorporates many topics including poverty, death, mental health, child abuse, LGBTQ representation, friendship and the black community’s relationship with police. But while McCraney said he couldn’t craft the story without those elements, his main objective was to explore what he calls “the interiority of a young black man.”
McCraney said there have been a notable number of works dedicated to unpacking the lives of white teenagers in the United States. John Hughes famously dedicated nearly a decade of his career creating a series of films inspired by his days as a high school student in Chicago.
But there’s a void for those stories in the black community — one he hopes to fill with “David Makes Man,” McCraney said.
“ ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ ‘Pretty in Pink,’ ‘Sixteen Candles’ — those films were chronicling that time of their lives. And we need those,” McCraney said. “We need those moments of showing our interiority.”