The first church hymn to caress our ears in Choir Boy, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s winning Broadway debut, is “Trust and Obey.” Its rousing lyrics give soul comfort for those on the straight and narrow. However, at the Drew Prep School for Boys, where the ditty is delivered (and disrupted by homophobic hisses), trusting and obeying are easier to sing than do. Especially if you’re Pharus (Jeremy Pope), choir star and teen of ambiguous sexuality. Pharus is bold, fiercely talented and ruthless in school politics. But even his perfect pitch can be queered by institutional secrets and lies.
A big-hearted, gimlet-eyed portrait of young African Americans navigating class and sexual differences in private school (and, implicitly, in society), Choir Boy was first presented Off Broadway in 2013 by Manhattan Theatre Club to general acclaim. Five years is a long time for a Broadway transfer. What happened? One word: Moonlight. Barry Jenkins' Oscar-winning 2016 film was based on McCraney’s unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I can’t say whether McCraney – who shared the Oscar for co-adapting the screenplay – was too busy with that project to shepherd Choir Boy to the Great White Way, or if the success of Moonlight prompted MTC to finally transfer, but the result is worth a loud and proud hallelujah.
The two titles unfold in markedly different milieus, but share notable motifs. Both are coming-of-age tales about gay African American boys. Both feature hurtful, neglectful mothers (Pharus’ won’t bother attending his graduation) and caring, if complicated, father figures (Chuck Cooper as a kindly but firm headmaster). Both heroes enjoy a surprisingly intimate friendship with a straight friend. AJ (John Clay III), Pharus’ roommate, is flummoxed by his “swish,” yet remains affectionate and loyal.
But whereas Moonlight was a heartbreaker about a sensitive child from the Miami projects who smothered his desires and grew up to be a numbed-out thug, Choir Boy centers on a flamboyant kid in an affluent, culturally rich environment who is already successful and popular. However, due to the repressive culture around him, Pharus may prance and sass, but he can’t kiss a boy. He’s in the closet, even if the door’s wide open. His main antagonist is Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson), a spoiled legacy student unable to grieve his dead mother. Other classmates, such as the easygoing Junior Davis (Nicholas L. Ashe), try not to take Pharus too seriously. Then there’s David (Caleb Eberhardt), a low-income student on scholarship who can’t afford to mess up – whether that means getting into fights, or forbidden affairs.
Choir Boy unfolds in a brisk but unhurried fashion over 100 minutes as McCraney artfully sketches the boys and their personal and academic trials, with brief, painful glances into family life via phone conversations. The only teacher we meet is the white and amusingly befuddled Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, adorable), brought in by Headmaster Marrow to help the boys beef up their essay skills. Soon Marrow has put Pendleton in charge of the choir, which is being roiled by animosity between Pharus and Bobby.
Jeremy Pope’s lead performance is a whirling, glittering thing of beauty – whether breathlessly tossing off McCraney’s bitchy double entendres, swooping through solo vocal lines or executing Camille A. Brown’s grinding, grooving choreography (based on South African gumboot dance). All the actors deserve high praise for seamlessly meshing on the many musical interludes based on hymns and spirituals (written and arranged by Jason Michael Webb), which are expertly woven into the naturalism of the rest of the show by ace director Trip Cullman.
This season has brought several playwrights and works that depict the gay, male, African American experience, and it’s a welcome mini-boom. Besides McCraney, there have been bold, invigorating shows by Donja R. Love (Fireflies and Sugar in Our Wounds), and newcomer Jeremy O. Harris (whose button-pushing Slave Play was directed by Robert O’Hara, a longtime pioneer in this subgenre). Each writer is unique in his own way, of course, but there’s inherent drama in the intersectionality of being black and part of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s about steering one’s identity through the traps of tradition, bigotry and gender norms, and McCraney puts those tensions and troubles into soul-stirring harmony.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.