Eleven classic spirituals are used for shifting the scenery, delivered full-out and a cappella by various members of the cast, who play five African-American preppies. Even the headmaster (the strong-lunged Chuck Cooper) is allowed a number. The selection of songs—and every word in the play—is the work of Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays, Wig Out!). “Each song that’s in the play does something to move the story forward in some way,” said Ms. Greenfield. “How the songs got used and where exactly they went—that was really the outgrowth of our collaboration, but he chose the songs himself. He added the song for Chuck, once we knew we had him. It’s, like, ‘How do you have Chuck Cooper and not let him sing?’”
When MTC commissioned him four years ago, Mr. McCraney was just on the cusp of wider recognition. “Lots of things were happening to him simultaneously,” Ms. Greenfield recalled, “a residency at the Royal Shakespeare Company, becoming a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company—but he was very up front with us: ‘It’s going to take me some time to deliver this, both because I have a number of other opportunities that have come along, and also because it’s a very personal play for me and I want to get it right.’”
MTC was willing to work with that, giving him the time he needed, and co-premiering the piece last fall at the London’s Royal Court Theatre so that he would have more time to work on it before bringing it to New York. When he did, none of the British cast was used. The play was recast stateside by Nancy Piccione and Kelly Gillespie. “I wish I’d been a fly on the wall at those auditions,” Ms. Greenfield said. “They brought in the best of the New York theater talent. Listening to these young men was just an embarrassment of riches. We really found the crème de la crème.”
Less challenging was finding the cast’s lone Caucasian, a Mr. Pendleton, an old civil-rights marcher brought in to give the boys a course in creative thinking. “We were sitting around brainstorming, and I said, ‘Well, what about Austin Pendleton?’ It got this huge laugh, then we decided, ‘That’s it!’ It was a crazy ah-ha! moment.”
Coming off a successful season is always daunting when it comes to cranking up a new one, but for Ms. Meadow, it’s business as usual. “We plan on successes every time,” she said.