New York City Theater
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
Things are not what they seem in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s incisive, loosely constructed “Choir Boy.” Young men raise their voices and stomp their feet, enraptured by glorious song and dancing (music direction by Jason Michael Webb, choreography by Camille A. Brown). But were the indigenous songs written as guides for escaping slaves or are they merely handed-down, soothing spirituals?
Similarly, although the a cappella choir sings as a unit, seething beneath the apparent camaraderie are yearnings, resentments and strivings that reveal tensions both personal and societal, sexual and racial. That the intermissionless work doesn’t truly progress is a drawback compensated for by harmonious acting and singing.
As much allegorical as realistic, “Choir Boy” is a character-driven happening, where religion is a bulwark against adolescent angst. “You could hear how 'keep your hand on the plow' later became 'keep your eyes on the prize’ and resulted in 'yes we can,'” says Pharus, the play’s protagonist. “For we left earthly things to the oppressors by way of this music and we joined the ranks of the heavenly host with its praise and love.”
The setting is the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys, an African-American enclave with high standards, a place where private troubles are (or should be) sublimated for the good of the school, the advancement of its students and the worship of God. That’s an ideal that the effeminate tenor, Pharus Jonathan Young, takes to heart, even when being harassed by his nemesis, Bobby Marrow, the Headmaster’s nephew.
Pharus follows the school’s code of honor by not revealing who harassed him, despite continuing barbs. “Don’t nobody snitch at Drew,” says Junior, Bobby’s apostle, answered by Bobby’s “Don’t nobody supposed to swish at Drew neither.”
Refusing to be categorized, Pharus listens to his own drummer. “Sick of people calling me something I ain’t doing,” he says. “I’m just Pharus.”
The play’s conflicts go beyond the personal, however. It’s really a battle between roots and change, between tradition and the need to break the mold of stereotypes and prejudice. Society’s attitude towards blacks is mirrored by the boys’ attitude towards gays. (Playwright McCraney won an Oscar for the similarly themed “Moonlight.”)
The lesson is brought to the fore by Mr. Pendleton, a white man recruited to teach the boys creative thinking. When students arbitrarily use the N-word, Pendleton, a former civil rights advocate, angrily rebels. Putting down African-Americans becomes linked to labeling as inhuman anyone who’s “different.”
Under Trip Cullman’s taut but underwhelming direction (the sound level is low though the energy level is high), Jeremy Pope is a guileless, agile, sensitive, sassy, aware, assertive Pharus. Expecting respect, not love, he gives as good as he gets. Unwilling to accept taunting, Pope’s Pharus flaunts his campiness without apology, turning the character into a figure of pride and bravery.
John Clay III is empathetic as Anthony, Pharus’ jock roommate; J. Quinton Johnson is strong as Bobby; Nicholas L. Ashe is loopy but not foolish as Junior; and Caleb Eberhardt is touching as David, a bewildered student who precipitates the play’s one act of violence. The two adults are excellent: Chuck Cooper finds the Headmaster’s contradictions of being strict but understanding while the wonderful veteran Austin Pendleton, as Mr. Pendleton, is as rumpled as his clothes.
“Choir Boy” is a coming-of-age tale with a difference. Its music, performed with heartfelt excitement, banks the flames of adolescent terrors and offers freedom from the slavery of prejudice.
--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 14, 2019