The gifted director Trip Cullman conjures a gorgeous conspiracy of elements – aural, dramatic and visual – in making the strongest possible case for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s affectingly sentimental memory play Choir Boy, which the Manhattan Theatre Club has revived in its Broadway home five years after its off-Broadway premiere.
The intervening half-decade has seen McCraney’s ascent from prolific author of coming-of-age plays redolent of the perfumes of growing up black, ambitious and gay in the American South – notably the Brother/Sister trilogy – to MacArthur grantee writer of the Oscar-winning Moonlight, which he co-adapted from his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. In style, McCraney is a close relation to Lanford Wilson, who all but invented the genre that came to be known as poetic realism, of which Choir Boy is an exemplar: Set in an exclusive prep school for black boys, the longish one-act offers a soft-focus excursion through deepening layers of privilege and prejudice into something like maturity.
The play opens during the commencement exercises at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, where the school’s celebrated choir, led by rising senior and choir lead Pharus Jonathan Young, sings the alma mater. Pharus is young, gifted and black. And gay. At first, he ignores the sotto voce poison darts of his nemesis and fellow choir-mate Bobby. But the escalating epithets – “Sissy!” “This faggot-ass nigga” – finally unnerve Pharus, causing him to briefly interrupt the unearthly singing, a protocol breach that mortifies the headmaster. At a dressing down after the event, Pharus adheres to the school’s sacred anti-snitching code (and he is not unaware that Bobby is Headmaster Marrow’s nephew, in contrast with his scholarship status). “Would you rather be feared or respected?” Pharus demands of his interlocutor, whose inherent kindness and regard for Pharus’ intelligence and talent supersede his frustration with the boy’s unconcealed effeminacy, not to mention a maddening self-confident affect that barely masks Pharus’ internal sadness and turmoil.
Pharus, then, is a rich character, and Jeremy Pope, who originated the role, has grown only more sympathetic as a boy who constantly threatens to dissolve in a powder of annoyance, only to emerge as effervescent. (We will likely see this amazing actor reappear on Broadway soon, as Eddie Kendricks, in Ain’t Too Proud.)
How Pharus negotiates the treacherous waters of Drew, sometimes with success and as often in heartbreaking failure, is the subject of Choir Boy. The boys in the group, guided by music director Jason Michael Webb, make an angelic sound and are given frequent chances to amaze us. Chuck Cooper, as the headmaster, and Austin Pendleton, as a retired teacher recruited to return to jar the boys out of complacency, also return, to great effect, from the original production (though the Pendleton character comes perilously close to White Savior and nearly makes the play about him).
Like Pharus, McCraney can’t resist some showing off himself. When Pendleton assigns the boys to write an essay challenging some paradigm of conventional thinking, Pharus delivers a lecture on a subject that was getting a lot of attention at the time of the play’s premiere: debunking the idea that Negro spirituals and folk songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were coded guides for slaves escaping to the north.
“There is no substantive proof that spirituals contain coded secret passageways to freedom,” Pharus argues. “And I know some would condemn me for saying this and breaking a long tradition of faith that we were creative enough, strong enough, to rebel even i' th' music that did oppress us. But the rhythm and the joy and the spiritual uplifting that the music made, makes still, well; that is proof. That strength; that is the rebellion.”
I love McCraney’s faith in Pharus’ precocity, delivering an undergraduate-worthy treatise as entertaining as this – no matter how diverting from the actual story at hand. It serves as reassurance that the playwright’s alter-ego will prevail over the many decks stacked against him. It’s a thesis that so far has been proven unimpeachably accurate.