When playwright and poet Tarell Alvin McCraney gave us Moonlight–he showed the magic and nuances of Black men–specifically those struggling with their sexuality, in a way that we’d never seen them before. With his stunning new arthouse coming-of-age series, David Makes Man–starring Phylicia Rashad and a slew of newcomers, McCraney delivers once again.
Based on the events of McCraney’s own life growing up in Miami, the OWN series follows 14-year-old David (newcomer Akili McDowell), a young Black man growing up in the Miami projects. Still haunted by the death of a close friend–David is also grappling with caring for his little brother (Cayden K. Williams) and his relationship with his mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas)–a hard-working woman who is recovering from drug addiction. Each day, David is bused miles away to his affluent magnet school where his teacher Dr. Woods-Trap (Phylicia Rashad) prompts him to expand his mind in new ways.
Breathtakingly stunning and compelling, David Makes Man presents a poetic picture of Black identity, masculinity and what it means to “make man.” Ahead of the series premiere–STYLECASTER sat down to chat with the showrunner, Dee Harris-Lawrence, the legendary Phylicia Rashad, Akili McDowell and Nathaniel Logan McIntyre who plays David’s best friend Seren.
“This project, from day one of meeting Tarell Alvin McCraney, became very much my story,” Harris-Lawrence revealed. “There have been coming of age stories but I don’t think there have been coming of age stories like this where you get into the mind of a young Black boy–and we have such a young Black cast. When I first met with Tarell after I read the script I said, ‘I’m pretty much the female version of David, in terms of growing up in the hood and having to be bused miles away to go to school.’ I used my imagination in a big way, and I was a huge dreamer. I had a teacher named Ms. Brown who got me writing stories. As I started writing more stories, my daydreams began to wane. That’s when I realized, ‘This is what I have to do.’”
For Ms. Rashad–whose character, Dr. Woods-Trap, is one of the few adults who takes an interest in David, this was a role that she knew she had to take on. “I was very taken with this role,” she explained. “I am very happy with this role because it gives me the opportunity to pay homage to teachers–even members of my own family. I had so many aunts and uncles that were teachers who cared about their students. Those teachers continued to study. That’s something that is apart of this character. That’s a very real experience for me, and I attended segregated schools. I went to school in Houston, Texas during the time of legal segregation. All of my teachers were African American teachers, and all of my teachers had been teaching for a number of years and they learned to study. [Dr. Woods-Trap] is by training and by study–an anthropologist. It’s history and culture combined with literature–and she challenges her students to be creative with their assignments, and she watches them all. I think Dr. Woodstrap is a very compassionate person–she’s not giving to judgment.”
Working with the young cast–particularly Akili McDowell and Nathaniel Logan McIntyre also prompted Ms. Rashad to shift her approach to acting for the small screen. “I didn’t feel any pressure based off of the strength of my career–but I felt pressure with these two,” she laughed. “They are so swift, and they are so bright and unmanipulated. If you go back and you watch old television and old films–when you watch these things across the decades, you notice that the acting styles change. These two are just brutally honest, which is good for someone like me.”
Though David Makes Man is brilliant–the subject matter, especially since it deals with younger characters can be sobering. “I feel like it came from a place of vulnerability because at some point in life you’ve dealt with something like this,” McDowell said of stepping into David’s shoes. “You might not have experienced it this way–but it comes from a place of true feelings. [Tarell]was really hands-on throughout this whole project–and just everyone else in the cast. I just kept asking him. ‘What am I supposed to feel for this? What am I supposed to give off? What is the effect of me doing this right now?’ Whatever decisions or choices Dave makes–he does it for survival. He wants to be successful not just in school but at home too.”
“Terell had the answers for everything,” McIntyre said. “It was so easy just to go to him and ask him about everything. Whenever I’m getting into a really emotional scene, I prepared for it. I stay in my own mind, I evaluate the situation that my character is in and I use some of my past experiences and my life choices and things like that that might be able to put me in that mood to get that emotional.”
Still, don’t expect the series to be all doom and gloom. “Of course you will cry watching this, but you will laugh too,” McDowell revealed. “There are happy moments in this show–it isn’t all about crying and dreading. You will have a good time watching this show that has a little bit of everything thing.”
In addition to the ground-breaking subject matter–the visuals in David Makes Man are breathtaking. Like Moonlight, McCraney was adamant about filming on location in Florida. “I think it contributed to the realness,” McDowell explained. “It does get hot out there. One day it would 90 degrees, and that night it would be 40 so you could see that in each scenario.”
David Makes Man centers on a quiet, strong, and a curiously willful Black boy. David is someone who lives in McCraney’s memory and imagination. He must, by gut or grit become a man — it’s gut-wrenchingly honest. The series is a love letter to Black boys and men from the people who have nurtured them. For Ms. Rashad–it’s a love letter to her own dad. “My father was what is referred to as a man’s man,” she explained. “He was a man that men loved. Women adored him and men loved him. He was beautiful in every way. He was a man of faith. He loved his work, he took pride in it. He took joy in learning. He loved simple things and most of all he loved his children. And he would never leave his children. I never wondered where my father was–I always knew where he was. He was always there for us even as adults my father would travel to New York to see me onstage– even if I was just opening a door.”
David Makes Man premieres on Wednesday, August 14th at 10pm ET/PT on OWN.