Tarell Alvin | McCraney | Playwright | 28 | New York City
Only two years ago, Tarell Alvin McCraney completed the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama, yet he's not waiting tables, toiling while awaiting a big break. His debut, The Brothers Size, which transplanted an ancient West African myth to modern-day Louisiana, premiered at New York's Public Theater and London's Young Vic in 2007. Other award-winning McCraney plays have tackled everything from Hurricane Katrina to the competitive New York drag circuit. McCraney's "it boy" status in the international theater establishment belies his interest in the stories of those at the margins -- particularly where the LGBT and black worlds intersect, sometimes violently. Obama's ascension, McCraney points out, hasn't eradicated homophobia among blacks or integrated people of color into mainstream gay culture. "Part of my charge is to continuously give voice to the voiceless," he says, noting one obscure story after another -- a transgender woman murdered in Tennessee, a gay man beaten at Morehouse College -- that failed to garner national headlines.
McCraney's new Brother/Sister trilogy will be performed at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., before runs at the Public and Chicago's Steppenwolf; it features a love-starved woman in the projects, two brothers coming to terms with one another, and a semiautobiographical story of a young man coming out in the South. McCraney never loses sight of his unique responsibility, even as a consulting artist-in-residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company. "They didn't ask me to come in and be Shakespeare -- they wanted gay, black, urban Tarell to come in. I try to hold true to what I know the theater can do and the power of it."
Lucky Michaels | Photographer | 29 | New York City
LGBT teens make up an outsize proportion of runaway youths nationwide. With disconcertingly few programs to help them, they are particularly vulnerable to homelessness and its residual dangers. Even in New York City, only 75 beds exist for this entire demographic. Twenty-six of them are at Sylvia's Place, a harm- and crisis-reduction facility run by the Metropolitan Community Church. Its director is Lucky Michaels, who joined the program at its 2002 inception as an overnight counselor. Then a photography student at Parsons, Michaels was himself a refugee from conservative Traverse City, Mich., where he'd endured ostracism and the suicides of two gay friends. Michaels fused his photographic talent with his mission in Shelter, a beautifully spare, unsentimental book documenting the first three years of Sylvia's Place through Michaels's mesmerizing photos and first-person testimonials from residents. Shelter is "an advocacy tool," Michaels says. "There is still a lack of services and representation for this population. They're essentially invisible. People would rather talk about marriage equality and more attractive issues." He's currently at work on a second "participant observer photo essay," two related photo exhibitions, and a music video (featuring Soren Anders).
Ariel Schrag | Cartoonist | 29 | Los Angeles
Growing up in the liberal bastion of Berkeley, Calif., cartoonist Ariel Schrag didn't need to officially come out to her parents. They just read about it in her groundbreaking series of self-published graphic novels that chronicled each of her high school years. Those "comic chronicles," as she refers to them, Awkward , Definition , and Potential , were all reprinted a decade later in 2008 ( Likewise , which tracks her senior year, was published in its entirety for the first time last April) by Simon and Schuster, a testament to their enduring wit, humor, and wisdom.
Had Schrag graduated pre-Stonewall, in 1968 instead of 1998, would her books have been as frank regarding her struggle with her sexual identity? "One of my biggest inspirations was R. Crumb, and he published the first issue of Zap in 1968, so maybe my work would have been all sex!" Schrag says. "But maybe I would also be closeted and straight, so the comics would be all about unsatisfying straight sex. Or maybe I'd be a teenage girl who was never encouraged to draw comics and they wouldn't exist at all."
Schrag branched out into TV in 2003, writing for two seasons of The L Word. She has just adapted Potential for the screen as a combination live action-animation feature, to be directed by Rose Troche, and will be actively involved with the animation.
Matthew Lew | Artist | 29 | Chicago
One-of-a-kind,limited edition, and exclusive are terms that sell in the art world, but for Chicago artist Matthew Lew, the opposite has always been true. "Everyone should be able to have art on their walls," he says.
Although prints of his works are widely available at stores like CB2 (a Crate and Barrel spin-off), they're not homogenized. Location informs his process. For some of his works, Lew has infused his paints with waters and wines from around the world, to make them more emblematic of the places they portray. Lew is also inspired by the iconography of Chicago's skyline and has created a series of multimedia works that
resemble the extruded towers and exaggerated verticality of artist Wayne Thiebaud's San Francisco cityscapes.
"These paintings have a lot to do with the city's architecture and how diverse it is," Lew says. The mottling of bold colors in his works echo America's quintessential multicultural metropolis and underscore the celebratory nature of his palette. Lew's inclusive approach extends to his work in collage, photography, abstract art, and landscape painting.
"The way I make art is a process of complete experimentation. I could be inspired by the color combinations in an scene from SpongeBob SquarePants -- I never know where it's going to come from."
Rebecca Walker | Writer | 39 | Honolulu
Rebecca Walker's latest work of nonfiction is steeped in sexual orientation and gender identity. One Big Happy Family, published in February by Riverhead, argues that nonnuclear family structures like polyamory, adoptive parenthood by gays, single motherhood, and mixed-culture families are
becoming the norm in suburbia and bustling cities alike. Her driving goal as an author and activist (she's the cofounder of the Third Wave Foundation, which aids young women and transgender youths) is to help people break free of ideas that limit identities and society, she says. To that end, Walker says she's recently been rethinking approaches to masculinity, a topic that's become increasingly important to her since the birth of her 4-year-old son, Tenzin.
"I sensed his frustration that if he didn't shut down emotionally and play sports and violent video games, he wouldn't be socially accepted," Walker says. "I made a parallel between that and the ways in which girls have been socialized. Our boys and men deserve our attention and the information they need to re-create their own masculinity."
Walker's own sense of identity is rather complicated. She's black, white, Jewish, bisexual, a mother, a feminist, Alice Walker's estranged daughter -- the list goes on. Still, "other people define you," she says. "I find [identity] in other people when they write to me and say that my work encouraged them or made them feel not alone. It's for other people to say, not really for me to say."
Christopher Wheeldon | Choreographer | 36 | New York City
Christopher Wheeldon has put sugarplum fairies on notice. The New York Times called the ballet wunderkind "the most talented classical choreographer of his generation," in part for his sublime ability to shake the dust off a couple centuries of ballet tradition. In 2007 the precocious Wheeldon left the alpha-dog New York City Ballet, where he had been a soloist and then resident choreographer, to found his own company, Morphoses, and since has been calling upon an astounding international network of dancers and choreographers to fill its ranks season by season. Today, the British choreographer-artistic director is preparing for Morphoses' third season in fall 2009 -- plus a Central Park SummerStage collaboration with fellow iconoclast and Brooklyn neighbor Martha Wainwright. Charming and understated, Wheeldon says his adopted home city has done a lot to bolster his confidence as a gay man: "I'm in a place where I can focus my energies on my craft and not have to fight to exist." And while his work isn't overtly political, he says, "I create my dances to transport people. We're living in a time where beauty and poetry is really important. If anything, that's my political statement."