Tarrell Alvin McCraney is a unique playwright, one whose style is easy to recognize yet impossible to imitate. With The Brothers/Sisters’ Trilogy, McCraney imagined an evocative mix of bayou slang and stately lyricism. His characters almost spoke in free verse, without much regard for sounding realistic. McCraney recently received a Macarthur Genius Grant, and while his work has gotten more accessible since then, there’s still the same yearning for transcendent moments. Choir Boy, the latest McCraney play at the Studio Theater, is a coming of age story mixed with a more sophisticated exploration of identity. McCraney has the wherewithal to combine identity with a historical context, which means his latest could be set a generation from now and still be just as relevant.
Schools like the fictional Charles R. Drew Prep, where the play is set, are out of fashion nowadays. The student body at Drew are elite young black man – some who come from privilege, others not – and the school is about to celebrate its forty-ninth anniversary. Pharus (Jelani Alladin) is the leader of the school’s choir, so he’s proud to lead an assembly through the school song, at least until someone distracts from with nasty epithets. The Headmaster (Marty Austin Lamar) does not care about the jeers, exactly, and in the subsequent discussion with Pharus we learn that Drew’s honor code precludes students from snitching on each other. It’s just as well, since Pharus would rather go back to his choir duties. He leads four other students, with an emphasis on modern vocal arrangements, and these five young men also meet with Mr. Pendleton (Alan Wade), an elderly white teacher who aims to get them into college. Pharus is also gay – it’s a largely unspoken secret – and his sexuality is a catalyst, testing the limits of tolerance among his friends, classmates, and superiors.
Director Kent Gash, along with music director Darius Smith and set designer Jason Sherwood, use a mix of minimalism and careful details in order to make Choir Boy feel vibrant. The mostly empty stage is full of well-varnished wooden furniture, as if Drew is an imposing institution, and five portals allows allow props to enter/exit easily (the portals are also necessary for a shower scene, which I’ll get to later). Still, the most important part of the play is how it’s a showcase for the dynamic vocal arrangements: Choir Boy has enough song breaks to qualify as a musical, and each performer has an opportunity for a solo. The best numbers are when the choir perform as a whole, and use their bodies as percussion. Smith imagines something between the blues, gospel, and spiritual traditions. And while the songs are not an exact reflection of what the characters are thinking – a hallmark of a Broadway musical – the actors add enough specific depth so they’re more than just diversions from the action. They’re about the uneasy clash between tradition and new forms.
The best scene in Choir Boy, the one that brings it back to McCraney’s older work, is a lively debate between Pharus and his classmates. They’re talking about the purpose of spirituals: Pharus argues that the euphoria of the music itself is what gives the songs their meaning, while Bobby (Keith Antone) believes they contained coded messages that slaves shared. Unlike television or even film, McCarney weaves actual well-researched arguments into his dialogue, which adds to the plays’ intelligence and gives his characters something over which to spar. The disagreement between Bobby/Pharus is about more than spirituals: Pharus wants history to reflect his modern identity, while Bobby is more reticent (he’s the one who jeered Pharus during the assembly). Their debate is full of hypotheticals, like two young men unaware of their privilege, so it’s jarring when Pendleton abruptly ends a different debate with harrowed moral anger. McCraney is deeply aware of history and subtext, even when his characters are not, which means that the growing of pains of education can end in shock.
In between choir rehearsals and lively discussion, McCraney develops the relationship between Pharus and his classmates. The most moving involve AJ (Jaysen Wright), Pharus’ friend and roommate. AJ is the jock of the group, and he plays the character as if he’s shy about his acceptance of Pharus’ sexuality. There are several scenes where he and Pharus chat after lights out, and McCraney somehow strikes a perfect balance between unexplored sexuality, tenderness, and regret. Wright and Alladin have lived-in chemistry, although it’s not exactly sexual, and their scenes make the case that an accepting friend, not a lover, is exactly what every confused teen (e.g. all of them) really need. This physical tension and tenderness reaches its apotheosis during a shower scene, one where Wright, Alladin, and their castmates strip naked and hit the showers. Through Gash’s direction and the lighting design by Dawn Chiang, the male nudity is not provocative for its own sake. With an inspired song choice, one that’s instantly recognizable, the sequence is also a metaphor for vulnerability.
Choir Boy follows Pharus and the others throughout the academic year. The play begins and ends with an assembly, which does not exactly suggest that Pharus and the others are more mature by its conclusion. Instead, McCraney has the wisdom to realize that high school is a mix of epiphanies and disasters, with steps moving in utter chaos until, somehow, the transition to adulthood happens by accident. At the beginning of Choir Boy, the Headmaster speaks with authority, and sees student behavior with black/white simplicity. The Headmaster is more confused by the play’s end, and also more empathetic. McCraney may use the trappings of a school drama to explore his themes, yet he realizes that even within a prestigious prep school, a true education means we never stop learning, or screwing up.
Choir Boy is at the Studio Theater until February 22nd. Buy tickets here!