Tuesday, January 8, 2019

CHOIR BOY: Insightful Play Suffused with Adolescent Angst and Glorious Singing Kicks Off the New Year on Broadway

Jeremy Pope Stars in CHOIR BOY
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Who am I?  What is my place in the pecking order? What are the non-codified rules that define what I can or cannot do without being ostracized by my peers? 

These are some of the urgent questions of adolescence that playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney tackles in Choir Boy, opening tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in a richly entertaining and frequently insightful production about a group of students attending a private boarding school for young black men.   

Ambiguity and uncertainty rule the lives of the students of the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys, an institution steeped in a tradition of honor and pious faith. Its teenaged charges are far from home, with only their required weekly phone calls to their families to keep them anchored. They are often unsupervised or under-supervised, and they have little recourse but to figure things out for themselves, with results that are sometimes character-building and sometimes damaging. 

At front and center is Pharus (a charismatic Jeremy Pope), who is not only young, gifted, and black, but also gay. Pharus’s gift is his voice, which we learn as the play opens with his performance of the school song, the hymn “Trust and Obey.” It is a true honor to be the designated soloist for this piece, which is performed each year for the traditional ceremony before graduating seniors, their families, and the school’s board of directors. 

It must be as perfect a moment as possible. So when Pharus suddenly pauses in the middle of a line, it makes for a mortifying scene for the headmaster (Chuck Cooper), who threatens to pull Pharus’s scholarship.  

We in the audience are privy to the distraction that has caused Pharus to momentarily halt and look around. Standing behind him is another member of the gospel choir,  Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson), a troubled teen who is a “legacy” student and the headmaster’s nephew.  

We don’t know a lot about Bobby's background, but it’s not hard to imagine that he has been sent to the school to learn some self-discipline. What Bobby has been whispering behind Pharus’s back are homophobic slurs. As the play progresses, this won’t be the last time. 

While McCraney cannot avoid revisiting coming-of-age themes about youthful angst we’ve seen before in plays like Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and John Patrick Shanley’s Prodigal Son or the film Dead Poets Society, Choir Boy offers a fresh take by making race an essential component of the play. The playwright also provides us with more nuanced characterizations than we generally are accustomed to seeing.  

Pharus comes off not merely as a sympathetic victim of bullying, but also as ambitious, clever, and manipulative when it serves his purposes. He is, for example, not above raising Machiavelli’s famous question as to whether it’s better to be respected or feared as he contemplates his role as leader of the gospel choir. 

And even though he is openly “swishy,” as he says of himself, he is far more circumspect when approaching any discussion about his sexuality. When his straight roommate and good friend AJ (John Clay III), someone who has proven himself to be trustworthy, asks him who he’s interested in, Pharus feints and goes for the evasive joke by responding, “Jesus.” There are, he knows, lines that must not be crossed, even in the best of circumstances. 

For his part, the belligerent Bobby is painted in more sympathetic tones than you might expect, while others like the kind-hearted AJ and the conflicted David (Caleb Eberhardt) are revealed to be far more complex characters as we learn more about them. 

The adults, as well, are delineated beyond any easy clich├ęs that might define them. Chuck Cooper portrays the headmaster as a bit of a stuffed shirt, but you can see how
Jeremy Pope and Chuck Cooper
Photo by Matthew Murphy
committed he is to the school and to the boys.  He wants very much to be open to creative and talented and, yes, gay students like Pharus, but he squirms at Pharus’ flamboyant behavior.  “You gotta tighten up so that people don’t assume too much. All men hold some things in,” is how he awkwardly tries to explain it. “See, your private life is, well, private.  Don’t let it all out.  Keep them guessing.” 

For a play that takes place in a school, there is only one teacher who puts in an appearance. He is also the only white person we see, a former colleague and friend of the headmaster who has agreed to help out for a short time by offering a course in creative thinking to the boys in the choir. 

As played by Austin Pendleton, the teacher manages to bring some discipline into their thinking. More dramatically, he steps in and puts a halt to the casual use of the word “Nigga” by the students. His handling of the matter, the fury he
Cast Members with Austin Pendleton (right)
Photo by Matthew Murphy
expresses, is one of the emotional high points of the play, especially as he knows from direct experience as an active participant in the civil rights movement, of the long history of pain and suffering behind such words. 

Yet, intriguingly, he does not address, except possibly obliquely, the homophobic language as well. It’s a smart and subtle touch the playwright has put in here, one that underscores the general “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment in which the students live. 

Throughout the play, as the boys are sorting out their relationships and learning to become honorable “Drew men,” we are treated to several a cappella performances of gospel tunes and spirituals, skillfully and movingly sung by the ensemble. 

While most of the music does not speak directly to the action, the singing captures the depths of the students’ passion, and sometimes even their despair. Most compelling is a heart-piercing rendition of “Motherless Child,” performed by a character who recently lost his own mother. 

Choreographer Camille A. Brown (Once On This Island) adds tremendously to these performances by providing the students with powerfully-arranged movements that perfectly express their pent-up feelings.

Cast Members Singing and Performing to Camille A. Brown's choreography
Photo by Matthew Murphy 

Despite some flaws, as when the playwright slips into easy (if genuinely funny) jokey punch lines instead of dealing directly with some of the issues, Choir Boy is splendidly performed by the company and beautifully directed by Trip Cullman. It is a wonderful way to welcome in the new year on Broadway. 


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