LOS ANGELES — For many people, childhood means inhabiting multiple worlds.
That can be a good thing, molding an actor or author, a politician or salesman. Or it can be an ordeal.
The latest example is “David Makes Man,” the Oprah Winfrey Network series about a 14-year-old bouncing between a housing project and a magnet school. It’s fictional … except when it’s not.
“I don’t think I’ve created anything, ever (that) doesn’t have some intimate reflection of my experience,” said Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning (“Moonlight”) writer. He grew up “dirt poor,” commuted to Miami’s elite New World School of the Arts and became an Ivy Leaguer.
That sort of multi-world childhood seems to be frequent among creative people, and others.
Winfrey herself has described bouncing from Mississippi to Milwaukee to Tennessee, ranging from poverty to being a star in church and in the media. Others have had similar stories.
“Code-switching became something I’m very, very good at,” actress Poppy Liu said.
That’s the art of adapting to different places, in her case ranging from Shanghai to Minnesota, from Old World settings to dancing at the Mall of America. “Being able to be a chameleon and morph into different spaces was, I think, a survival skill since I was young.”
It’s the sort of skill required in the real life of McCraney and the fictional life of the boy he created..
McCraney grew up in Liberty City, the low-income Miami neighborhood known for rappers, football stars and last year’s “Warriors of Liberty City” documentary.
Towering above other kids (he’s now 6-foot-3 1/2), he was eyed for basketball. “I’m like, ‘No, I actually wanted to be a prima ballerina.’”
Except, of course, he didn’t say that out loud. Instead, he took daily excursions between worlds. “I would cross a border into a very white neighborhood and then take the bus to a very white school.”
In his neighborhood, he said, people never discussed poverty. In his school, it came up often. “You go home with the understanding that where you come from is less-than, somehow.”
At 14, he told a teacher that he was depressed. The response: “Well, you’re a big guy. You’ll be OK.”
But the New World School of the Arts was also a top place to study. He won the Dean’s Award for theater. He went on to DePaul and then to the Yale School of Drama … where he won the Cole Porter Playwriting Award. Other awards have followed, including a MacArthur Fellowship and the Oscar for co-writing “Moonlight,” adapting his own play.
At 38, McCraney chairs Yale’s playwriting program. In “David Makes Man,” he has David imagining — and talking to – someone who simply isn’t there.
“If I didn’t have the sort of dexterity of my imagination,” he said, “I wouldn’t have survived. What does it mean to use your imagination to survive? …. When does it go too far?”
Those are questions David may face in his shapeshifting, code-switching life.
— “David Makes Man,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays, repeating at 1 a.m., Oprah Winfrey Network
— Starts Aug. 14