Welcome to the 49th Commencement of the predominantly black, Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. This is the kind of elite, uninformed, religious institution run with strict code of honor/conduct resembling the military. Prejudices are exacerbated by privilege .
When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,/what a glory He sheds on our way!… (school anthem, “Trust and Obey”) sings new head of chorus Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope). “Sissy…faggot ass nigga…” whispers Bobby Marrow at his ear. (J. Quinton Johnson, who could have done more with the role.)
Horrified, Pharus stops momentarily. For this, he’s railed at by Bobby’s uncle, Headmaster Marrow (a rock solid Chuck Cooper), who can’t fathom why the soloist marred his ceremony. Nor is he about to find out. Fluently quoting from The Bible, the accused merely implies what occurred.
Pharus is not a “snitch.” A smart, articulate student attending on vocal scholarship, he’s also effeminate and has suffered for it. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (author of the Academy Award winning Moonlight) gives his hero’s speech tandem attributes of literate intelligence and street savvy vernacular making it appealingly distinctive. The character is credibly watchful and self-disciplined.
Jeremy Pope and Chuck Cooper
There’s no question the boy’s beautiful tenor warrants his appointment. Choir is not only Pharus’ way to make his mark, but opportunity to raise a joyful voice exorcising his struggles. Status and participation are vital to him.
The play is half a capella music intermittently sung by the choir. Sometimes this is clearly performance, at others spontaneous, and in one case, a sequined-jacket fantasy. Music Direction/Arrangements/Original Music by Jason Michael Webb; fine voices; and terrific, kinetic, stomping, clapping choreography by Camille A. Brown make these parentheses uniformly splendid.
Bobby and his friend Junior Davis (Nicholas L. Ashe) draw garbage duty. The overly entitled troublemaker is sure he’s been ratted out. He calls mommy to complain and declares war, needling Pharus at every opportunity, even storming out of class when he doesn’t get his way.
Pharus’ roommate, Anthony/A.J., a large, gentle jock, advises him not to inflame hostilities. He seems to be the only one sure of and sympathetic to Pharus being gay – and a virgin. The relationship is startlingly mature. John Clay III imbues A.J. with practiced patience and empathy.
Other featured characters include quiet, studious David Heard (a skillfully restrained Caleb Eberhardt), studying to be a priest, and visiting teacher, Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton), brought in to help seniors “think outside the box.” David and Pharus are attracted. Observed, this has consequences. Pendleton’s classes/assignments are fascinating. Austin Pendleton does an able job of embodying the dedicated character with baby boomer intolerance for bigotry, but a single allusion to past experience will only be clear to those of us with similar history.
John Clay III, Jeremy Pope
Choir Boy depicts intolerance increasingly played out in our society; pick a religion, race, culture, or sexual norm currently facing off. Though characters are sketched rather than detailed, Tarell Alvin McCraney has given us an intriguing protagonist, a lot of good writing, and driving music beautifully performed.This piece is more than the sum of its parts.
Jeremy Pope, who originated this role Off Broadway, is flat out terrific. In this actor’s hands, Pharus (it means “lighthouse”) embodies a kind of grace, adding dimensionality to the piece. A triple threat, Pope’s thoughtful acting weighs in with excellent vocals and robust, precision dancing.
Director Trip Cullman’s visual aesthetics and dramatic finesse are effective, though sometimes too even handed.
Ensemble: Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, Marcus Gladney
Scenic Design morphs from room to room effortlessly. Costumes are spot on. (David Zinn)
Original Music and Sound Design is crisp and well balanced. (Fitz Patton)
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: Nicholas L. Ashe, Jonathan Burke, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt, John Clay III, Gerald Caesar
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Trip Cullman
Through March 10, 219
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47 Street