What we’ve learned from … Barry Jenkins & Tarell Alvin McCraney

In the latest session of our online drama club for older LGBTQ+ people, we looked at this short extract from the final act of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film Moonlight (2016), which he developed from a screenplay by the Black queer dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney (Wig Out!, The Brothers Size).

Here are a few of the things we learned from watching the scene together and talking about the different ways the two characters try to control the outcome – before putting some of these ideas into action in a series of improv games.

1 When characters enter a potentially explosive scene, they each have their own individual ways of trying to manage the situation. Unless they are extreme control freaks, this won’t involve thumping tables and raised voices. It’s more often about the subtle methods they use to raise their status just a little higher than the other person in the scene (to use the theory developed by improvisational guru Keith Johnstone). Characters can say very little, the way Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) does in this scene – just as he did in the scene this one rhymes with from the beginning of the film, when Juan (Mahershala Ali) buys the boy something to eat at a different diner. Or they can just keep talking, as Kevin (André Holland) does here. Either way, they are both trying to gently bend the other to their own will.

2 When characters look like they’re trying to control a situation, they’re often just trying to control their own emotions. Chiron may say very little but he has a massive amount on his mind and in his heart. After all, all it took was a late-night phone call out of the blue from his childhood friend Kevin (stirring such deep feelings that it prompted a wet dream when he fell back asleep) for Chiron to get in his car and drive the 650 miles from Atlanta, Georgia, where he has been living, all the way back down to Miami, Florida, where he and Kevin first met as children in Liberty City. If this looks like extreme behaviour, he later reveals that Kevin is the one man he’s ever had sex with when they were teenagers (“You the only man that’s ever touched me.”). In this context, saying little looks like an entirely rational approach.

3 When a character is scared someone might say something they can’t cope with, keeping talking is a great way to prevent that happening: it leaves them no silence to fill with what’s on their mind. Once Kevin finally realises that the customer sat in front of him is actually Chiron, he can’t keep quiet. He is profoundly surprised to see Chiron again – even though it was him who reached out in the first place. But that question (“What you doing down here?”) would seem to imply that the invitation wasn’t as straightforward as Chiron seems to have thought. But Kevin immediately regrets asking it when Chiron breaks eye contact and looks down in shame – either because it’s shown his hand or he’s seen what a big deal this is for Chiron (or both) – and he quickly softens: “You’re here now, that’s all that matters.”

4 It’s easy for characters to fool themselves about their acting abilities when they’re suddenly put under pressure in life. When deep feelings erupt within them, especially when they are so-called difficult feelings that aren’t always socially valued, they often do what they can to cover them up. They may succeed, to some extent or another, so they congratulate themselves, thinking that the person they’re talking to hasn’t clocked exactly what’s going on. Well, perhaps they haven’t spotted the feelings as feelings. But somewhere, they’ve logged the discrepancy between what the character is saying and how they’re behaving. Here, it’s the camera that registers what’s actually going on, when Kevin turns to his new customer and suddenly recognises his childhood friend. The moment he speaks his name is not recorded – we just hear it. What the camera sees is that sequence of shock and surprise – not just at who is in front of him but how he is looking at him, which is what we see next: Chiron sat at the counter with his head winningly tipped to one side, no trace of gangster swagger, his face dreamy with love.

5 When one character attacks another, that’s perhaps because in that instant the person they’re having problems with is themselves. Reminded of his phone-call promise to cook, which he may regret now that Chiron has taken him at his word, Kevin slips into teasing (“You don’t look like your ass been missing no meals!”). But just as he quickly changed tack after asking his friend was he was doing in the neighbourhood, he instantly regrets the dig and covers with a skilful performance of the host. “I got you, man – sit down. Sit down, man, what you want? You can order off the menu, if you want to, or – hey, I could just hit you with that chef’s special.” Chiron himself doesn’t choose either option. He looks up and holds Kevin’s gaze. Which is when Kevin says the one fully authentic sentence he utters during this part of the scene: “Yeah, we here, Chiron.” He has fully recovered his composure. And in a real sign of just how much he has regained the initiative, he makes the decision for Chiron, announced on the move back into the kitchen: “One chef’s special – coming right up.”

6 Underscoring the way these two men work through their powerful feelings for each other and about themselves, cued up by the ringing of the doorbell as Chiron enters the diner, is Aretha Franklin’s One Step Ahead. It appeared once before in the film, when Chiron as a boy returns home to be ignored by his mother and the man she’s with. Does the song’s reprise mean this will be another miserable encounter (“I’m only one step ahead of heartbreak / One step ahead of misery”)? Or will things go differently this time (“I’m only one step ahead of your arms / One kiss away from your sweet lips”)?

• In our weekly digital drama club for older LGBTQ+ people, we identify lessons from work by queer dramatists, play improv games, write our own pieces and rehearse them to hone our performance skills. If you would like to know more, please email our participation producer, Daniel. No writing or performing experience is necessary!

Martin Moriarty,
8 July 2020