By Tarell Alvin McCraney; Directed by Trip Cullman
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Runs through 2.24.19
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
by Dan Rubins on 1.9.19
Jeremy Pope and Chuck Cooper in Choir Boy. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
BOTTOM LINE: Song speaks louder than words in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Broadway debut.
In the locker room of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a space where young men avoid eye contact and ensure their toweled bodies stay beyond arm’s reach, one boy walks up to another, close enough to touch, and begins to sing to him. Keening, truth-telling: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” The recipient of the song listens, then when he is ready, joins in, a call-and-response. Soon enough the other boys, entranced, begin to sing too, the perceived awkwardness of their surroundings draining away, the maturity of their shared music giving the lie to the performative toughness or easy silliness of their usual banter. They understand each other better than they’re willing, at least in spoken words, to admit.
This moment, this song, is the unexposed marrow of Choir Boy, the unsettling, playful, puzzling drama by Tarell Alvin McCraney playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, but neither of the boys who begin the song are even the show’s protagonist. That would be Pharus (Jeremy Pope), the queer black high school senior hell-bent on singing the solo at Commencement for a second time, after his junior year moment in the spotlight gets derailed by homophobic taunting from a member of the gospel choir. But it’s to McCraney’s credit that, while Pharus is played with wrenching, resolute self-confidence by an electric Pope, those smaller spirits, his choir mates, get their chance to be heard, each with far more than perfunctory differentiating traits and backstory.
Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson) is the Headmaster’s nephew, repulsive in his treatment of Pharus, yes, but also insistently sympathetic, his unforgivable attacks seemingly the over-spill of familial anguish he can’t shake or describe. Then there’s David (Caleb Eberhardt), pursuing a first-generation education with an overbearing fear of something getting in the way of the path he has paved for himself—and that his family has paved for him; his cruelty stems from other, more tangled roots, and his anger seems more insidious and dangerous for its quietude. And that's not to mention AJ (John Clay III), the roommate that Pharus constantly expects to choose to exit stage left for good, and Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe), Bobby’s lackey, who tags along despite his superior moral code and wit.
All four of these actors offer tender, energetic performances, bringing clarity, humor, and tremendous pipes to the school’s choir room, where Pharus proudly presides. But it’s still Pope’s effervescent performance that stands out, probably because, even though being out makes Pharus something of a pariah, it also means that, unlike his classmates, closeted in one way or another, he comes the closest to revealing the whole truth of himself, unwilling to “tighten up” like the Headmaster hopes he will.
But Pharus is also treading water feverishly to preserve an existence that no one else at Drew will fight to protect: Pope soars in his performance whenever Pharus dares to say things aloud that his classmates won’t, using shock as a shield until he can negotiate his way to safety. He's terrified, yes, but he's going to enjoy his own outlandishness as much as he can. Many of the quips he offers the Headmaster (the conflicted but would-be-caring Chuck Cooper, marvelous as always) provoke gasps in the audience: if it sometimes feels like that polished edge comes more credibly from the playwright than from the teenage character, these moments are forgivably also among McCraney’s funniest.
Just after the well-received Off Broadway debut of Choir Boy in 2013 (also by Manhattan Theatre Club), McCraney, already celebrated for The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, won a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant.” In 2016, he was appointed chair of Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program. A year after that, he won an Oscar for the screenplay of Moonlight, adapted from his own earlier play. But this is McCraney’s Broadway debut, as well as the Broadway debuts of six of the actors in the eleven-man company.
At the helm of those eleven men is director Trip Cullman, whose lucid, detailed staging lends focus to a script that, while consistently compelling, sometimes gets away from itself. The scenes involving the veteran Austin Pendleton as the play’s one non-black character, a retired historian teaching an elective course “in thinking” who opens his first class session with a racist joke (and then somehow becomes the choir's faculty sponsor), feel more like opportunities for interesting debates than part of the play proper. Pendleton’s perfectly fine in the role (apparently written for him—the character’s name is Mr. Pendleton) but, much like a choir member who just doesn’t blend, these sequences could probably afford to be cut. And McCraney's attempts to make Pharus do in speech what he excels at doing so skillfully in song, like a hefty monologue in one of those Mr. Pendleton scenes about the historical purpose of spirituals, make interesting points but stay earthbound.
In fact, most of McCraney’s dialogue, though often stinging and sometimes poetic, only approximates the specificity and complexity of character expressed in the songs scattered throughout the play, used alternately as set pieces and transitions. McCraney’s “Genius Grant” pedigree shows itself most clearly when he steps back and lets the music do the talking. Music director Jason Michael Webb offers arrangements of a series of gospel and spiritual pieces whose searing harmonies contrast with the obstinate disunity of the boys. A pair of step sequences choreographed by Camille A. Brown rivetingly captures the confinements of a school supposedly striving to maximize its students’ eventual freedom. And as far as soloists go, it’s not just Pope’s simultaneously joyful and despairing understanding of Pharus that make him so magnetic: it’s also his glorious, melismatic voice, which conveys the adolescent’s eternal hope and hopelessness in the same breath.
Choir Boy suffers from the early scenes’ premonitions of plotlessness: Pharus, the opening minutes make abundantly clear, doesn’t have the power to transform Drew’s toxic culture. He doesn’t have the power to do much of anything at all. But hindsight in the play’s moody afterglow reveals that Choir Boy isn’t a play about inaction, it’s a play about resilience. No, Pharus doesn’t get to change Drew Prep School as some classmates fear he will, but Drew doesn’t get to change Pharus either. Pharus, the whole of him, survives. And that in itself is something worth singing about.
(Choir Boy plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, through February 24, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. There are also performances Sunday 1/13 and 1/27 at 7; no performance Wed 1/23 and 2/13 at 2. On Wednesday 1/6, the evening performance is at 8. Tickets are $79 - $159 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more information visit manhattantheatreclub.com.)
Choir Boy is by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Trip Cullman. Music Direction, Arrangements, and Original Music by Jason Michael Webb. Movement by Camille A. Brown. Set and Costume Design by David Zinn. Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski. Original Music and Sound Design by Fitz Patton. Stage Manager is Narda E. Alcorn.
The cast is Nicholas L. Ashe, John Clay III, Chuck Cooper, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Austin Pendleton, Jeremy Pope, Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, and Marcus Gladney.