Ask out playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney where he considers his home to be, and he'll say, "I don't call anywhere home."
Such is the life of a successful jobbing playwright like McCraney, a 32-year-old Miami native who has lived from theater residency to theater residency since he graduated from Yale School of Drama with a Masters Degree in Fine Arts in playwriting in 2007. For example, after the world premiere of McCraney's play Head of Passes opens at Steppenwolf Theatre Company this month, he heads to New York to work with Manhattan Theatre Club and then on to England to work again with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But the Windy City has strong claims on McCraney, especially since he was asked to become an ensemble member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2010. The invitation came right after Steppenwolf produced the triumphant Chicago debut of McCraney's acclaimed trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays in its upstairs theater space.
McCraney also did his undergraduate work at DePaul University, so he has great affection for the Chicago theater scene.
With Head of Passes, Steppenwolf has given McCraney's newest play prime position in its main downstairs theater space. When asked if he was nervous by the larger venue, McCraney instead said the stress levels were about the same thanks to the fact that he's paired again with director and ensemble member Tina Landau to bring the play to fruition.
"She's been very clear about how we work in that space from the beginning so it's been a part of the entire journey," McCraney said about Landau. "Working with Steppenwolf is different than working with other theaters because this is my home theater, and I've been treated like family."
Head of Passes takes its name from the shifting marshlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River. McCraney also found inspiration from the Biblical Book of Job for his story about a young woman named Shelah who must struggle with a crisis of family and faith.
"We [as artists] are free to talk about many things, but we rarely talk about faith in specific, and especially 'American faith,'" McCraney said. "The production deals with something that is very intimate, but also the larger question about faith and how does one maintain faith. Do you throw it away, or keep it?"
In addition to Landau, McCraney is keen to be working with other Steppenwolf ensemble members in the acting company like Tim Hopper and Alana Arenas (whom McCraney has known since they were teenagers). He's also worked with other actors in Head of Passes like Jacqueline Williams, Glenn Davis and Cheryl Lynn Bruce, one of McCraney's former DePaul professors.
When asked about his future plans for work at Steppenwolf, McCraney hoped that one day the company could find ways to collaborate with other world-class Chicago arts organizations the way that The Second City recently teamed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago for an evening of opera-inspired sketch comedy. In particular, McCraney would love it if he could be involved with collaborations with Windy City dance companies he greatly admires like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago or the Joffrey Ballet.
"That's the thing about Chicago. You've got these companies that are internationally known with artists of great acclaim, and they still have this sort of hometown feeling of going, 'Oh, we're neighbors, we should work together,'" McCraney said. "That's part of what makes Chicago, Chicago."
Head of Passes begins previews Thursday, April 4, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Previews continue through Saturday, April 13, with an official opening night of Sunday, April 14. Regular performances, through June 9, are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday with 3 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday (7:30 p.m. Sunday evening shows end May 19, and 2 p.m. Wednesday matinees commence May 22). Tickets are $20-$78. Call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org .
Literary lesbian hero
Playwright June Sawyers is on a mission for more people to know about Margaret Anderson, the lesbian editor of the influential Chicago literary magazine The Little Review from the early 20th century. To do so, Sawyers has written the one-woman play Life Without Roses, which has a two-performance premiere in Chicago's historic Fine Arts Buildingthe very same building that Anderson worked in to produce her magazine.
"I just liked the idea of Margaret Anderson," said Sawyers, noting her love of focusing on bohemian artists and Chicago history. "(Anderson's) personality was so theatrical itself, I thought I'd try my hand at it and I wrote Life Without Roses."
Although Anderson's time in Chicago producing The Little Review was brief (from about 1914-17), her literary journal helped spread the work of many great 20th-century authors like Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein to U.S. readers. And according to Sawyers, Anderson was much admired for her beauty and personality in Chicago societyso much so that the great local author and playwright Ben Hecht lamented in his memoirs how she wasn't attracted to men.
Actress Cynthia Judge portrays Anderson, who is depicted in the play as looking back at her time in the Windy City in its literary heyday.
"[Anderson] knew everybody in the literary community and the theater community," said Sawyers, adding how Anderson was extremely popular at literary salons. "She had presence, so when she was there, people paid attention and she made sure they paid attention."
Life without Roses plays 7:30 p.m. Fridays, April 12 and 26, in the Anna Morgan Studio (Room 825) at the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $10; to RSVP, call 312-435-9736.