Spiraling in the light, fog stealthily transforms schoolboys in their locker room into living sculptures, accompanied only by the insistent atonal plinking of dripping taps in the offstage shower. In the theater, moments like these ravish our senses and happily “Choir Boy” is filled with an arrestingly indelible array.
Since premiering off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club’s The Studio at Stage II in 2013, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play has been tightened and has evolved to include topical references — though some key cast members remain the same. Set at an exclusive all-boys prep school for African-Americans, The Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys offers religious learning that rewards conformity to a hyper-masculine ideal of manhood (“…be and act as a Drew man should.”) This environment poses challenges for all the students, who are forming identities in the throes of adolescence, but especially to those who are homosexual. (Intimate relations between students are prohibited.) The school is renowned for its gospel choir and much of the play’s considerable tension revolves around entitlement to leadership of, and participation in that choir, which acts as a microcosm of the society awaiting the Drew graduates.
The action begins as a choir boy’s pride about singing a solo version of the school anthem at the graduation ceremony is sullied by the slurs hissed at him by one of his fellow students. However, he refuses to tell the school headmaster the name of the boy who taunted him, choosing instead to exact accountability through the power that comes with leading the choir.
An Academy Award winner, after his screenplay was adapted for the movie “Moonlight,” McCraney writes heightened, lyrical dramatic language. The strong vernacular rhythms in his dialogue come close to forging a contemporary version of iambic pentameter. Part of his genius lies in making cerebral themes vibrate with emotion, but the playwright still writes with an evenhandedness that avoids predictable stereotypes. His characters are rich in human complexity and as a result we care deeply about what happens to them. In his earlier work, such as “The Brother/Sister Plays,” exuberant dialogue at times overwhelmed the structural framework of the plays. Even in this version, the script seems to be on the point of ending multiple times, but ultimately resolves in a satisfying coda.
The preternaturally gifted Jeremy Pope plays the title role — precocious choir boy Pharus Jonathan Young. Not only is Pharus an exceptional musical talent, he is driven by a restless intellect. “Curious with a capital “C”!”, his longsuffering headmaster calls Pharus. (Chuck Cooper’s performance is rock solid and refreshingly empathic — he may enforce the rules but he does so humanely.)
Pharus is also markedly effeminate, and vacillates between demanding acceptance from his school and retreating into heartbreaking self-loathing. Simply by being himself, Pharus is constantly testing boundaries. And he is astute enough to realize that he must work very hard for the acknowledgement his talents deserve. “I’m grateful. I am! But should I be more humble and what groveling, right? ‘Thank Drew for letting me live along side these good other strapping mean behind boys,” Pharus protests, suggesting in McCraney’s poetic language that his schoolmates are two-faced. Pope’s performance exquisitely calibrates both the victim and the know-it-all. We ache for him.
Much of Pharus’s angst comes from Bobby Marrow, the headmaster’s nephew (J. Quinton Johnson) and Pharus’s nemesis. Playing a homophobic and status-conscious bully, Johnson conveys spoiled frat boy nastiness with resolute conviction. He’s a shirker who leverages the system to his benefit by excluding those less economically privileged or sexually conforming. Doubtless the playwright intends the implied irony about what kind of men Drew is educating and celebrating, as Bobby, though marked by trauma of his own, embodies the dubious values of out-of-control privilege and pandering.
The devout and confused David, essayed with anguished sensitivity by Caleb Eberhardt, attempts to play peacemaker. “What we have is so much more than they can see,” he sings in solitary lament. His portrait of a young man pushed to the brink by the unyielding expectations of others is heartbreaking.
The action of the play is charged by African-American spirituals integrated into the text and impeccably performed a cappella by the uniformly strong cast. Their singing and percussive movement interrupts and extends the action through musical metaphor, amplifying the stakes for the characters. We understand, for example, exactly what it means to “hold on, and keep your eyes on the prize” when soaring melody and movement make such realizations inescapable (the stunning and empowering choreography is by Camille A. Brown, last represented on Broadway with the hit revival of “Once on this Island.”) The sensitive musical direction, arrangements and original music are by Jason Michael Webb (Fitz Patton also wrote original music for the play).
When Headmaster Marrow recruits a former Drew professor and civil rights activist to teach a “required elective” to the graduating class, another disruption ensues. Mr. Pendleton, as played by the distinguished director/actor Austin Pendleton, espouses flexible and creative thinking. (Amusingly Headmaster Marrow is quick to correct him, “no, critical thinking.”) But Mr. P quickly seems out of place and out of touch. He stands for the last gasp of a certain brand of now irrelevant old-fashioned white liberalism.
Steadfast during the Pharus’s tribulations, roommate Anthony (John Clay III) is the kind of athletic overachieving hetero hunk that college scholarships are made for and serves as a powerful model of affection and friendship. The asexual tenderness he is secure enough to demonstrate toward Pharus is beautifully conveyed, especially in a scene where he improvises a haircut for his friend.
Director Trip Cullman also helmed the original off-Broadway production. As with his last play, “Lobby Hero,” Cullman is in complete command here, guiding his actors toward characterizations that are explicit and chiseled. In “Choir Boy” the symmetrical staging carries the play from naturalism to pageant and back again. David Zinn’s cleverly minimal set assists with these transitions, as does the finely judged lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, and the penetrating sound design by Fitz Patton.
“Choir Boy” forces us to think about the human potential that continues to be lost through oppression and insistence on conformity. But it also tells us that “we’re creative enough, strong enough to rebel,” as Pharus passionately proclaims during his own take on spirituals. And that reminder is reason enough to be grateful.
“Choir Boy” opened on Jan. 8, 2019 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Creative: Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney; Original Music by Jason Michael Webb and Fitz Patton; Directed by Trip Cullman; Movement by: Camille A. Brown; Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by David Zinn; Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski; Sound Design by Fitz Patton.
Producer: Manhattan Theatre Club.
Cast: Nicholas L. Ashe, Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, John Clay III, Chuck Cooper, Caleb Eberhardt, Marcus Gladney, J. Quinton Johnson, Austin Pendleton, Jeremy Pope.