'Choir Boy': Theater Review

Michael Lamont
The cast of "Choir Boy"
That rare thoughtful play whose rousing commercial instincts enhance its insights

MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient Tarell Alvin McCraney's black prep school drama soars on its revelatory singing of Negro spirituals

While few doubt the capacious talent of 33-year-old Tarell Alvin McCraney, on the evidence of his trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, he could have been mistaken for an accessibly esoteric artist trafficking in Orisha myths and remote subcultures. So it’s a bracing surprise that his Choir Boy — set in a contemporary black prep school removed from the depradations of society yet inevitably embroiled in its challenges — demonstrates formidable commercial chops, with little evident compromise of the playwright's illuminating vision or poetic language.

From A Separate Peace through If… to Dead Poets’ Society and The History Boys, the boys’ boarding school has served as a well-worn microcosm of adolescent relationships and a metaphor for the larger world outside. While such institutions can now seem like anachronistic incubators of elitist privilege, part of the stimulating freshness of Choir Boy lies in the refuge and opportunity that the Charles Drew School represents for its diverse body of black male students, despite all its hidebound traditions and dogged religious moralisms. 

Upfront and center in this volatile mix of masculine competition and evolving identities is the ineluctably gay Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope), with his heavenly voice and florid mannerisms. The student masks his suppressed feelings of unworthiness with a brazen sense of destiny and concerted advocacy on his own behalf. However, in an early scene with Headmaster Marrow (Michael A. Sheppard), McCraney slyly shows Pharus currying favor with obsequious insolence, invoking a classic stratagem of the subservient. The gifted singer has achieved his dream to lead the school’s choir, a crack a cappella ensemble instilling new harmonies into classic "Negro" spirituals. (The characters themselves refer to them with this descriptor, and McCraney takes pains to provide historical context for its use.)

Though Pharus may be admired, he begins the play being disrespected and unnerved when Headmaster Marrow’s nephew Bobby (Donovan Mitchell), part of a family of major donors to the school, hurls racial slurs during a commencement performance. Adhering to the timeworn Code of Conduct, Pharus refuses to rat out a fellow student. Nevertheless Bobby, who recently lost his mother, becomes his nemesis in senior year.

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The choirboys are required to take an "elective" seminar in critical thinking from renowned retired historian Mr. Pendleton (Leonard Kelly-Young, currently onscreen in Gone Girl). The white Pendleton makes a sketchy entrance when he arrives late for the first session with a joshing allusion to CPT (Colored People’s Time). The audible gasp elicited from the audience bespeaks the gravity of his transgression.

Yet McCraney proves himself far more sophisticated on the issue, as he consistently provokes both characters and audience to examine their conditioned sensibilities more discerningly. Pendleton has been a veteran Freedom Rider from the life-risking days of the civil rights struggle, and his breaches of extant decorum proceed from hard-earned familiarity and comfort. The greatest respect we can accord one another, McCraney suggests, is to offer up our genuine selves and afford our compatriots that same incomparable license.

A discussion in which Pendleton elicits nuanced and personal analysis from his students of the motivations behind slavery — encouraging them to debate the role spirituals might have played in stimulating resistance and escape, as well as providing solace and cultural connection — encapsulates McCraney’s intellectually honest approach to thorny issues that relate perceptions of the past to the challenges of the present.

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Though its trappings may be almost entirely conventional and its fundamental thrust inspirational, Choir Boy impressively builds layers of dimensionality upon standard types, mirroring McCraney’s complex development of his dramatic arguments. This, in turn, allows the actors to suggest subtle shadings that evoke intricately complicated relationships. Even when trafficking in familiar conflicts and issues concerning varieties of intolerance, McCraney encourages sensitivity and intimacy not only among his characters, but also from his audience.  

For all the supple intelligence at play, Choir Boy remains resolutely a popular entertainment, its strands of rational discourse no more difficult to follow than a challenging secondary school class, and its action energetic and engaging. Charismatic acting abounds: Pope's Pharus manages to be both brash and abashed, magically gifted and cripplingly insecure, while as his empathetic roommate "AJ," Grantham Coleman displays many facets of conflict and compassion with memorable humanity.

The play is so laden with stirring and joyous spiritual singing, employing cleverly arranged harmonies with a soupcon of soul, that it could almost be experienced as a jukebox musical of durable chestnuts. What's atypical of that debased format, however, is the way each selection is so perceptively integrated into the drama. The lyrics enrich and comment upon the play's themes, encapsulating the emotional immediacy of the scenes as well as the epochal backstory that haunts our shared common history. 

Cast: Jeremy Pope, Donovan Mitchell, Grantham Coleman, Michael A. Sheppard, Leonard Kelly-Young, Caleb Eberhardt, Nicholas L. Ashe

Playwright: Tarell Alvin McCraney

Director: Trip Cullman

Set designer: David Zinn

Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski

Costume designer: E.B. Brooks

Sound designer: Fitz Patton

Musical director & vocal arranger: Jason Michael Webb

Presented by Geffen Playhouse

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