Theater Prodigy Tarell Alvin McCraney Brings 'Choir Boy' to Geffen

“It’s interesting that we ask the artist to come up with answers to larger questions when we don’t ask our lawmakers to do the same”

From the same neighborhood as Trayvon Martin, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney took one look at what happened in Ferguson last summer and thought to himself, it could have been me. “I’ve been dealing with police officers profiling me since I was 13 and watching people take other people’s lives,” McCraney tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Raised by a single mother who battled addiction and died of AIDS complications when he was 22, he was mentored through community theater programs working his way up to Yale School of Drama where he met the late August Wilson and assisted on his final work, Radio Golf. Since then McCraney has won a MacArthur Fellowship and the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for celebrated plays like In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size.

His latest, Choir Boy makes its West Coast debut at the Geffen through Oct. 26. The acclaimed drama about gender and racial identity in a boy’s prep school focuses on Pharus, an ambitious and talented singer in the choir whose feminine ways make him an object of derision. A gay theater student from a tough inner city neighborhood, McCraney knows a thing or two about repression.

“That’s the tension in a community, how does one be a part of but also maintain one’s individuality? Of course the play is not nearly as stuffy and tight as that. It’s infused with a whole bunch of music and kids who have raging hormones and bad mouths but also trying to be a better, perfect version of the self they think they know,” he says.

Actor Jeremy Pope auditioned for the show’s 2012 original run at London’s Royal Court Theatre, but lost out to Dominic Smith. However, he was selected for 2013 Manhattan Theatre Club North American premiere and will take the stage at the Geffen.

“I thought I could relate to Pharus. People are doubting him for who he is and how he acts, what he believes in,” Pope says. “I believe this town has a one-dimensional image of gay men. And I believe the audience has the opportunity to see him first for his talent and his intelligence. He wasn’t just a gay kid in school.”

Individuality versus culture, tradition versus progress, these are conflicts McCraney’s characters commonly grapple with. In The Brothers Size, a pair of siblings, one a drifter fresh out of prison, the other a small businessman, are inextricably bound despite their opposite viewpoints on the world. Set against a backdrop of Yoruban culture on the bayou, it is second of his Brothers/Sisters trilogy, variations on a similar theme.

Read more 'The Brothers Size' Theater Review

“If we don’t allow individuals in our cultures to thrive and be their own brand of unique then humanity doesn’t grow,” he explains. “The idea of an establishment in general, the paradigm is by nature and by default exclusive. There are certain mores, dress customs that we apply to that that automatically creates a sort of inclusion and exclusion.”

The relentless tug of tradition in "Red and Brown Water," the indissoluble bond of blood in "Brothers" and in Choir Boy the irrepressible drive to be who you are in the face of conformity, all pose tough questions that McCraney doesn’t pretend to have answers for. A bigger question he’s been exploring in recent works has focused on the role of African-American men in a society that routinely profiles them as criminals to the point that one in three born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime.

“It’s interesting that we ask the artist to come up with answers to larger questions when we don’t ask our lawmakers to do the same,” says McCraney. “These are people who are making policy and yet we don’t ask for answers, we don’t ask for solutions, we don’t ask. We allow them to continue posing questions to us as if that’s our job. The best theater is one that presents questions of our society and our time and allows us to engage in them in a way that is as open as possible. I think that’s when theater is at its best.”