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In a key scene of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s affecting play Choir Boy, the central character Pharus Jonathan Young, whose swishy mannerisms make the open secret of his homosexuality impossible to ignore, argues that the traditional songs known as Negro Spirituals may or may not have contained coded clues to help runaway slaves escape their oppressors. He mounts an impassioned case that the more enduring purpose of spirituals should be evaluated in their capacity to provide courage, strength and healing even in contemporary free society: “That is the resistance.”
All the students of the elite Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys are navigating the passage to young black manhood with different degrees of struggle. Their only unified moments of peace and comfort come when they join their voices in heavenly song.
For Pharus — played with a mix of defiant pride, cheeky flamboyance, touching confusion and gnawing erosion of his self-worth in a galvanic performance from bright new talent Jeremy Pope — the path is especially tricky. He aspires to the perceived nobility of being “a Drew man,” even if that requires certain denials. His sexual desires for one, which he sublimates in his unstinting dedication to the school choir.
Director Trip Cullman’s vividly inhabited production, a scaled-up version of his staging for the play’s 2013 off-Broadway premiere with some of the same actors, employs musical interludes in various ways — as an equalizing force bringing graceful harmony to a discordant group; as a balm to soothe all manner of individual unease; as the liberating expression of repressed thoughts and feelings; or simply as connective tissue, breathing dynamic fluidity into the scene transitions.
The complex harmonies and vocal arrangements of music director Jason Michael Webb are particularly stirring when coupled with the emotive choreography of Camille A. Brown, which laces the otherwise naturalistic drama with moments of ecstatic poetic elevation. Anyone who remains unmoved by the young male ensemble’s plaintive delivery of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” must be dead inside.
The play opens at the end of Pharus’ junior year, when the newly appointed head of the choir leads the commencement assembly for the senior graduating class. But his sweetly transporting rendition of the school anthem, “Trust and Obey,” is interrupted by homophobic slurs from fellow tenor Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson), a legacy student and nephew of the Headmaster (Chuck Cooper).
That scene and the one that follows, in which Pharus is admonished by Headmaster Marrow for his momentary distraction, establish the bullying and oppression of gay youth as the key theme. That subject, examined within the context of wider issues of African-American masculinity and identity, was a significant element in McCraney’s Oscar-winning work on Moonlight, for which he wrote the original source material, and also present in his stylistically adventurous breakthrough trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays. With debate continuing over the sincerity of Kevin Hart’s atonement for his tasteless jokes in the past, black homophobia remains a topic ripe for exploration. (Though it’s a perplexing contrast that Tracy Morgan got merely slapped on the wrist for a far more vicious anti-gay tirade several years back.)
Pharus’ refusal to violate the Drew code by snitching on a classmate only compounds the Headmaster’s frustration with him, yet Bobby and his cutup sidekick Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe) return from summer break to find themselves on quad duty, picking up trash as punishment. Pharus, however, has his own revenge in mind. Seizing on his power as choir lead with righteous indignation, he dismisses Bobby for his belligerent attitude, escalating hostilities that ignite further in a class on creative thinking taught by semi-retired white historian Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton).
While Junior, played with wily smarts and slippery physicality by the terrific Ashe, manages to remain outside the friction, others are drawn in. Chief among them is bookish David (Caleb Eberhardt), a scholarship student aiming to become a pastor, who can’t afford to let his grades slip or get mixed up in fights; and Pharus’ roommate AJ (John Clay III), a strapping athlete with a surprising capacity for compassion and understanding. Both those actors have quietly moving moments in a superb young ensemble blessed with impressive vocal skills.
Many of the characters are cut from familiar molds — the effeminate gay kid torn between self-affirmation and self-protection; the privileged bully with his own burdens; the closeted loner crippled by anxieties; the sensitive jock. And the microcosm of an exclusive boarding school has often served in theater and film as a prism through which to examine traits prevalent in society at large. But the specificity of a black middle-class milieu, plus the writer’s sharp ear for dialogue and his observations on class, race and sexuality, give McCraney’s play distinctive qualities that outweigh its more conventional aspects.
The authority figure of Headmaster Marrow is especially well-drawn, imbued with gravitas and humor by the invaluable Cooper as a man whose sternness should by no means be misconstrued as moral rigidity. He tacitly acknowledges the need for elasticity in some of the hallowed institution’s more outmoded traditions, particularly when dealing with gifted students. McCraney also goes an unexpected route by making the sole white character the voice of direct civil rights involvement as a man who marched with Martin Luther King. Stage veteran Pendleton wears that experience like a rumpled glove, making his character acutely sensitive to schisms of intolerance among the students.
In its 2013 premiere, Choir Boy ran a tight 90 minutes and it has to be said that the additional 20 minutes in this expanded version brings few discernible benefits. A reference to “locker room talk” makes the play more unmistakably contemporary, as does Headmaster Marrow’s dressing down of Bobby for his outbursts in Mr. Pendleton’s class: “You sitting your silly ass in front of him spouting off like Kanye at a press conference!” But these lines generate easy laughs as opposed to the wry subtleties to be savored elsewhere.
Cullman guides the production with a brisk, assured hand on designer David Zinn’s spare set — the association of its deep reds with sexuality and violence is heightened by Peter Kaczorowski’s heated lighting — but the distended length points up some ambling stretches in which the play’s thrust loses force. Fortunately, the frequent detours into song can be relied upon to keep recapturing the emotional intensity, revealing the painful aloneness of Pharus and some of his classmates, as well as the solace and hope that the music provides them. Amen.
Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York
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
Playwright: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Director: Trip Cullman
Set & costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music: Fitz Patton, Jason Michael Webb
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Fight direction: Thomas Schall
Music direction, arrangements: Jason Michael Webb
Movement: Camille A. Brown
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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