Tarell Alvin McCraney’s work has dissected the black experience–and the multitude of intersections that exist within it–primarily through plays such as Choir Boy, Head of Passes, and, of course, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which was adapted into the Oscar-winning film Moonlight. The playwright has stretched into film (co-writing Moonlight and also the Netflix basketball drama High Flying Bird), but David Makes Man marks his first foray into TV.
The series follows David, a black 14-year-old prodigy whose life is being torn between two worlds: the gifted-and-talented school he attends and the projects where he lives.
“I wanted to explore how hard it was for me to figure out where my loyalties were,” McCraney said at the 9th annual Fast Company Grill at the South By Southwest festival. “You would have someone say, ‘You’re not like the rest of them.’ And then you would go home to the rest of them.”
Add to that physical, sexual, and drug abuse, and McCraney had a drama on his hands that was too expansive for film or stage.
“There were so many questions that it had to be serialized,” McCraney said. “And here’s the kicker: I have no answers to these questions. I know that I have a lot of questions and I want to be in conversation with my community about them.”
Actor Phylicia Rashad and OWN president Tina Perry rounded out the panel that touched on why Oprah thought David Makes Man was the best pitch she’d ever heard, how Rashad reaches the point where acting isn’t acting anymore, and the surreal lens through which McCraney projects David Makes Man to lend the show its unique voice.
Read highlights below and listen to the panel as a special episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation.
McCraney: Creating David Makes Man‘s surreal style
“This show is rooted in David’s point of view and the trauma that he is trying to work though. And trauma makes manifest in many ways. Sometimes it can take form physically, but a lot of times it takes place in terms of the way your brain pattern works. [Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris] talks about it like living with a bear. So every single human being has a reaction when they’re met in the forest with a bear. Our amygdala kicks in. Adrenaline starts pumping. We breathe better. We hear better. Our pupils become dilated. All of that happens within a matter of seconds. But what happens when you live with the bear? You come home to the bear. The bear is teaching you how to drive. The bear is tucking you in at night. That means your brain is starting to get accustomed to always being on red alert, always being in a place of trying to figure out the next move. And so that elevates your reality in a way. And we have a lot of young people who live in war zones. David is in a heightened place a lot of the time. He’s consistently in a moment of fight or flight because of some traumas that have happened to him and I wanted to really explore that.”
Rashad: Finding stillness
“What I really want to achieve is the moment when the acting goes away. That’s really what I want to experience. I want to share that with the other actors and with everybody on set. I want to be right in the reality of the moment, looking in everyone’s eyes and communicating from here [points to chest]. First I have to pray. The mind is always at work and I want it to become very still. I want it to become very, very still so it’s not working. The way it is in life when you really meet someone. When you really engage with someone. I have to find the stillness inside. And I have to have studied the script very well not just to know the words but to understand what it is about. What the scene is about is often not what is being said.”
Perry: How OWN chooses its programming
“At OWN, we love working with storytellers and artists who have a very specific voice and have intention behind the story they want to tell. All of our programming, whether you’re talking about Greenleaf or Queen Sugar, there are universal themes. It doesn’t matter your race, your sex, your gender. And I think what Tarell has done beautifully with David Makes Man is, through the eyes of this young African-American boy, he has hit these critical themes that if you watch it, you are going to relate to. We’re not in the business of just developing [shows] to develop. Oprah is really about finding people who go all in to a moment like this.”
David Makes Man premieres on OWN summer 2019.