Filled with the joyful noise of a male choir singing — and dancing — hymns, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s terrific Choir Boy marks the playwright’s Broadway debut. Having already won a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as an Oscar for his screenplay for the film Moonlight, McCraney broke onto the stage in with his powerful Brother/Sister plays. He currently chairs the Drama Department at Yale. He is 38.
McCraney’s commitment is clearly to meaningful theatre, although he just as clearly knows that a play has to be entertaining: Check both boxes for Choir Boy. Not only is the singing gorgeous, but the choreography (Camille A. Brown) is sensational, making each song something larger, more exciting than itself. Trip Cullman’s vigorous direction keeps the drama and the music in balance.
The show begins and ends with a commencement, creating a dramatic setup filled with both irony and promise. Graduating from Drew Preparatory School for Boys, a boarding school with the mission to create strong, responsible African American men, is a big deal, and the school’s anthem, “Trust and Obey,” turns out to be a tough combination if you’re gay.
Jeremy Pope is a knockout as the central character, Pharus. At first he seems to be playing swish for laughs, but he quickly emerges as a character who has character, a man of honor and ambition — “I don’t snitch,” he says,“let me lead,” meaning more than just leading the chorus.
This is an all-male world, and much like many other all male worlds — sports, the military, prison — the key revelation scene is inevitably the shower scene, precipitating a crisis in the boys’ lives. Their individual personalities emerge, and when they call home, they call their mothers. Fathers are absent, leaving Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper) to be a sympathetic, understanding disciplinarian, a father surrogate. The key to the upheaval is Headmaster’s troublesome nephew Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson), whose sidekick, Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe), is a rambunctious cut-up; and the bookish David (Caleb Eberhardt), a scholarship student who cannot afford to mess up in this privileged world. The one white teacher (Austin Pendelton), brought out of retirement to teach critical thinking, seems a forced addition whose role seems to be to prove the hopelessness of good intentions. The ensemble (John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, and Marcus Gladney) is excellent.
McCraney’s comment, quoted in the Playbill, resonates in a variety of ways: “Theatre is medicinal for people to understand themselves, understand the community, and understand and deal with the traumas of their lives.” A tall order for a show. As a white, straight woman, I found the show valuable as a glimpse inside a world that is not mine, and that lesson of “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” is always to the empathetic good.