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‘David Makes Man’ Is a Complex Portrait of Black Boyhood

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“Yeah, I’m real,” says Femi, a sharp-witted transgender den mother to abandoned youth, during the second episode of “David Makes Man.” Emerging out of nowhere with a group of homeless teens, Femi offers the 14-year-old David water and protection as he walks home with drugs he has been forced to carry. She is one of the show’s several characters who could be real or a figment of David’s vivid imagination.

“You didn’t see all these eyes on you?” she asks. “That’s all right, everybody don’t need to see everything.”

It’s a representative exchange on a show that may blur reality and fantasy at any given moment. But it also continues the nuanced explorations of black boyhood by the writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, best known for his Tony-nominated play “Choir Boy” and as a writer of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” And while “David Makes Man” shares a Miami setting with “Moonlight,” its 10-hour arc enables McCraney, who grew up there, to flesh out the hopes and tragedies of an entire South Florida black community.

The series, which premieres Wednesday on Oprah Winfrey Network, follows David (Akili McDowell) as he navigates life in a public-housing project while dealing with multiple pressures: to sell drugs and help support his family, but also to succeed as one of the few black students at his magnet school. Complicating these challenges is the death of Sky, a drug dealer and father figure who continues to mentor David by appearing to him in visions after he dies.

“The show came about because I was trying to track down those moments of trauma that were making it difficult for me to enjoy the moments of relative success that I was having,” McCraney said in a phone interview last month. “So many great things were happening for me, and I’d find myself depressed, in a fetal position, and then I realized I did not know how to be in the moment, take care of myself, love my body, my space, and the people around me.”

“I wondered why I didn’t learn those things,” he added. “I was surviving rather than living.”

When McCraney turned to his past in order to heal, he began to conceive of his title character, David, a dark-skinned African-American wunderkind who is mired in poverty, racism and colorism. Michael B. Jordan, who is an executive producer for the show, noted how similar his own childhood in Newark, N.J., was to McCraney’s.

“We thought it was important,” Jordan said, “to show other kids that have similar experiences or live in a similar situation that you can take the stereotypical disadvantages that you grew up with and turn them into strengths.”

And it was this complex portrayal of childhood trauma that caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey, who first heard about the show’s concept by chance. In 2017 she happened to attend a meeting just a few rooms from where McCraney and Jordan were promoting the show, and Winfrey said she had intended to stop by briefly to greet them.

Once McCraney started relating his personal path to this story, though, she was so captivated that she sat through their entire presentation.

“It was the best pitch I’ve ever heard,” she said.

The show’s slow-paced, hyper-vibrant aesthetics, steeped in magical realism, make “David Makes Man” the most experimental show on her network. But Winfrey was drawn mainly to David’s desire to work through tragedy.

“Everything we know about trauma is that most kids who’ve experienced it have trouble regulating themselves,” Winfrey said by phone. “And when David has trouble regulating himself, he dissociates and his imagination takes over. I love the fact that the show doesn’t pause to explain what is happening in his head. We just see him navigating between these two worlds.”

McCraney and the showrunner Dee Harris-Lawrence (“Shots Fired,” “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.”) knew they had to push the limits of realism in order to capture the creativity and coping mechanisms of David’s mind. Much like “Six Feet Under” and “The Leftovers,” the series explores the boundaries between life and death; it does so, in part, by referencing West African spiritual practices such as ancestor worship and divination rituals.

“We had a lot of practical conversations about how to show his imagination,” Harris-Lawrence said. “We weren’t ‘Krypton’ and did not have a lot of special effects. So we went to all the different departments helping us make this show and asked them to think out of the box and use sound, color and music differently, beyond their usual television tropes.”

As a result, “David Makes Man” upends preconceived notions about so-called urban dramas and the black characters they feature. Just as he did with “Moonlight” and his other previous works, McCraney turns the coming-of-age story into a complex treatment of black interiority and resilience.

“He always gives us multiple layers of black masculinity,” said E. Patrick Johnson, the author of the book and one-man show “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South — an Oral History.” “In one character, you may have a whole range of masculinities. The person who you perceive initially as a queen is the same man, or boy, that may, on the turn of a dime, become probably the most traditionally masculine person standing before you.

“In his art,” Johnson added, “masculinity is seen as a performance that has a whole range of modes and expression.”

That fluidity shows up in the series’s portrayal of the inner lives of its black male characters, as well as in the way it centralizes gender nonconforming characters like David’s neighbor Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), whose nurturing spirit, along with those of David’s mother (Alana Arenas) and teacher (Phylicia Rashad), are all essential to David’s maturation.

In the end, we begin to see the world not simply as David lives it, but as he wills it to be. And “David Makes Man” emerges as one of the most innovative television shows debuting this year.

Jordan said he hoped it would also inspire children growing up the way he did.

“We want to show a way for them to take their reality and turn it into a dream and a bigger opportunity,” he said. “And that your imagination is sometimes the only safe place that you have.”

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Editorial

What’s on TV Tuesday: ‘DC’s Legends of Tomorrow’ and ‘Vera’

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DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW 9 p.m. on the CW. After defeating a group of monsters and magical creatures that had been released from hell last season — using odd methods, like singing James Taylor songs — the Legends have become a worldwide phenomenon. In this Season 5 premiere, they invite a documentary crew to film them as they look into a new blip in the timeline, but Sara (Caity Lotz) is not happy with the attention.

PROJECT BLUE BOOK 10 p.m. on History. Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) stars in this drama series about an Air Force program set up to debunk cases involving unidentified flying objects in the 1950s and ’60s. Gillen plays Allen Hynek, a professor who can’t simply dismiss inexplicable events, despite pressure from the government to do so. Season 2 opens with Hynek and Capt. Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey) visiting Roswell, N.M., where someone claims to have evidence of an extraterrestrial crash landing.

FORTUNE FEIMSTER: SWEET & SALTY (2020) Stream on Netflix. The comedian and actress Fortune Feimster (“The Mindy Project,” “The L Word: Generation Q”) takes the stage in Charlotte, N.C., for her first hourlong Netflix special. Feimster riffs on her childhood and draws laughs through plenty of self-deprecating anecdotes: She has been mistaken for the actor Patrick Renna, who starred in “The Sandlot,” and she lived through an excruciating, failed attempt to become a swim champion as a child.

VERA Stream on BritBox. This popular British crime series returns for a 10th season — and it has already been renewed for an 11th. Brenda Blethyn stars as Vera Stanhope, a veteran detective chief inspector who is a little rough around the edges and, like most TV sleuths, obsessed with her work. The series, based on the crime novels by Ann Cleeves, is ripe for binge-watching: The four-part season looks at cases that touch on corporate corruption and organized crime, starting with the mysterious death of an entrepreneur whose body is found by bailiffs trying to repossess his house.

MISS SLOANE (2016) Stream on Amazon; rent on Google Play, iTunes, Vudu or YouTube. Jessica Chastain plays a ruthless Washington lobbyist in this political thriller directed by John Madden. Elizabeth is always one step ahead of her opponents, and she cannot be bothered by ethics. But she does have one principle that comes to light when an organization asks her to make gun ownership more appealing to women. The film’s ending disappointed some critics, yet over all the movie received positive reviews, mainly for Chastain’s performance. Writing in The New York Times, Stephen Holden said she stars “with such steely authority that you are hard pressed to imagine another actress playing the imperious, largely unsympathetic title character.”

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Editorial

7 Great Contemporary Novels for Teenagers

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My smell test for this list was simple: Which novels do teenagers themselves think are incredible? Which ones do they recommend to their friends? Which ones do they want to own, rather than borrow? As a grown-up, and therefore an interloper, figuring this out took a little detective work. I confess to eavesdropping, Twitter-stalking and the like in pursuit of the answers.

I consider this test especially important when it comes to realistic Y.A. novels, the ones that take place in the world as we know it. That is because while audience research shows that all of Y.A has a strong following among adults over age 21, I strongly suspect that it is the Y.A. fantasy novels (paging Leigh Bardugo, Sabaa Tahir, Neal Shusterman) that cross over most frequently into the lives of adult readers.

Of course, the excellent, realistic contemporary novels below are clearly enjoyed by adult readers — like me! But my evidence suggests that they have been cherished in an extra-special, even life-changing way by teenagers, and will continue to hit that sweet spot for the newest crop of kids to discover them.

[ This list is part of Story Times, a project from our children’s book editor to recommend the best books for young readers across all ages. ]

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This has been a staple of best seller lists for few years now, and for good reasons: It provides an ideal story to help teenagers think through questions of justice, racism, activism and personal responsibility, and it’s got catchy writing, perfect pacing and emotional smarts to boot. After a black student at a mostly white private school witnesses a police officer shoot her unarmed friend, she has to decide whether or not to speak up and pursue justice for him and for her community. There are also many appealing characters and dramatic moments. (The movie is great too — but don’t let it take the place of reading this gem.)

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Yes, it’s a hit Broadway musical, in the form of a novel — and it works. Both onstage and on the page, the story expertly dissects teenagers’ tortured relationships with popularity and social media. A lonely, anxious teenager writes notes to himself on the advice of his therapist. One of them falls into the hands of a deeply troubled classmate who commits suicide. Partly to help the bereaved parents, Evan pretends he and the boy were close, but struggles under the weight of his secret. The novel fills in scenes only alluded to in the musical, and fleshes out peripheral characters.

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This heartfelt, breathlessly told novel takes teenagers’ emotional lives seriously without being either sappy or gloomy. An artistic boy named Noah narrates half the story and his daredevil twin sister, Jude, tells the other half. The siblings are close until a family drama wrenches them apart, and they must find their way back to each other. Each experiences an exhilarating romance — Noah’s is with another boy — and an earnest struggle to figure out where their passions in life truly lie.

[ Looking for more? Our editor recommends great fantasy novels for teenagers. ]

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This gorgeous, award-winning novel in verse tells the story of a quiet Dominican-American girl from a religious family who scribbles her frustrations in a notebook and learns to speak her truth when she joins her school’s slam poetry club. There’s a sweet, forbidden romance and an inspiring story of finding your own creative voice. The book’s enduring popularity is a powerful reminder that teenagers groove on poetry, especially when it’s geared to the realities of their lives.

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This one is a clever psychological thriller and an insightful family saga all in one. A privileged teenager named Cadence, who spends summers on an island owned by generations of her mother’s family, narrates an addictively enigmatic story. Something is amiss on the island, and a sudden tragedy only deepens the mystery — until all is explained in a shocking ending that will make you want to start the book all over again.

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This novel delivers a romance that is mind-blowing in the best way. Natasha is a science-minded Jamaican girl who is hours away from being deported because of a paperwork error. Daniel is a Korean-American guy who has always been “the good son,” even when it goes against his poetic nature. They meet and catch one others’ eyes while literally crossing the street, and they — and we — have to picture all the improbable ways their futures could work together.

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Published way back in 2012, this modern classic may already have produced more tears than any book in existence — and that is a good thing, because every teenager needs a genuine emotional workout now and then. Even better when that comes in a plot-driven story written in effortlessly engaging prose. Hazel Grace is a 16-year-old with cancer. At a patient support group she meets 17-year-old Augustus, who’s already lost a leg to cancer. Together they pursue a mysteriously missing writer all the way to Amsterdam, fall in love and, of course, face their own very real mortality. Reading this book has become a rite of passage for some kids, and it’s easy to see why.

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Editorial

Barry Tuckwell, French Horn Virtuoso, Is Dead at 88

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Barry Tuckwell, considered by many to be the finest horn player of his generation, who displayed his skill in concerts all over the world and on dozens of recordings, died on Friday in Melbourne, Australia. He was 88.

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra, of which Mr. Tuckwell was founding music director and conductor, posted news of his death on its website. The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia said the cause was heart disease.

Mr. Tuckwell, Australian by birth, was a master of the French horn, one of the more difficult instruments in the orchestra to play well, especially as a soloist. People magazine, in a 1979 article about Mr. Tuckwell, called it “some 21 feet of coiled brass, valves, crooks, sockets, slides, keys — in short, booby traps.”

Mr. Tuckwell offered an analogy. “Playing the horn,” he told the magazine, “is like driving a very fast car on an oily road. You have to anticipate the things that may go wrong.”

Mr. Tuckwell took up the instrument as a teenager and became principal horn of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1955. Thirteen years later he embarked on a solo career, a rare step for a horn player.

He quickly developed a reputation for both a rich tone and a dexterity with difficult passages. He also conducted, leading the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra of Australia in the early 1980s before spending 17 seasons leading the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

“As the most recorded horn soloist of all time,” the Maryland orchestra’s executive director, Jonathan Parrish, said in the posting, “Tuckwell had a global impact on the world of horn playing and has inspired every generation of horn player for the past 70 years.”

Edward Schneider, reviewing some new recordings by Mr. Tuckwell in 1984 in The New York Times, nodded to his eminence. The recordings included three horn duets.

“Since no other horn player is named on the label,” Mr. Schneider wrote, “we must assume that, thanks to modern technology, the second horn, too, is played by Barry Tuckwell, who could not ask for a better partner.”

Barry Emmanuel Tuckwell was born on March 5, 1931, in Melbourne. His father, Charles, was an organist, and his mother, Elizabeth (Norton) Tuckwell, played piano; his father and others in his extended family had perfect pitch, and so did he.

He tried his parents’ instruments as well as violin before a friend introduced him to the French horn when he was 13.

“It was an important age to find something,” he told People. “I was not bright academically, and I was on the verge of being a juvenile delinquent.”

Two years later he was playing the instrument in the Melbourne Symphony. He also played with the Victoria and Sydney symphonies in Australia before moving to England, where he performed with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra before joining the London Symphony.

In a 1997 interview with The Times, Mr. Tuckwell credited an unexpected source with his ability to give a musical phrase a pleasing turn and to make a simple melody interesting: the jazz trombonist Tommy Dorsey.

“I played along with his records when I was a kid,” he said. “I’m proud to say I took lessons from Tommy Dorsey.”

As a soloist, Mr. Tuckwell played some 200 concerts a year. In 1978 he performed at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan during the Mostly Mozart Festival. A young man questioned him at length afterward, holding up a line of well-wishers.

“He wanted to know the secret,” Mr. Tuckwell explained to a reporter who had noticed the exchange, “and there isn’t any secret. It’s in the head, not in the lips.”

Mr. Tuckwell recorded almost everything in the classical French horn repertoire, and added to that repertoire by unearthing unknown or incomplete works for the horn, finishing those that needed finishing. But he also made efforts to push the French horn into the popular-music arena. In 1979 he and the pianist Richard Rodney Bennett recorded “A Sure Thing: Music of Jerome Kern.” In 1986 came “George Shearing and Barry Tuckwell Play the Music of Cole Porter.”

In 1994 he surprised the journalist Jim Lehrer and his wife, Kate, by agreeing to their out-of-the-blue request that he performed at their daughter’s wedding.

“I had never played for a wedding before, but I phoned up and said, ‘Why not?’” Mr. Tuckwell told The Times. “I will play the usual appropriate wedding music: the Trumpet Voluntary, the Mendelssohn ‘Wedding March’ and ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin.’”

Mr. Tuckwell, who lived at various times in Australia, England and the United States, retired from performing in 1997. His final program, played in Baltimore, included Oliver Knussen’s Horn Concerto, which was written for him and which he had given its premiere in Tokyo in 1994, with Mr. Knussen conducting.

Mr. Tuckwell’s survivors include his fourth wife, Jenny Darling, and three children, David, Jane and Tom.

Though Mr. Tuckwell was known for making difficult musical passages look easy, he was less impressed by flashy horn playing than he was by expressiveness.

“There are a lot of people who can play loud and fast,” he told The Times in 1978. “But it is still very difficult to play one note. In fact, I would like to institute a competition — although I don’t like them — in which each participant would be asked to play only one note. The length, the dynamics would be up to the player.”

“It would be a good exercise,” he added, “for the judge, too.”

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