At the heart of Tarel Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, the new play at Studio Theatre, is the question of what it means to be a man. Actually, it’s less of a question than a command. Set in the fictional Charles R. Drew School for Boys, a prestigious African American Prep School, Choir Boy is the story of five students who struggle to negotiate what it means to be a man in a world filled with ambiguities and shifting standards. Director Kent Gash builds a fascinating world dense with thorny intersections of race, class, and sexuality that are sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortable. It is ultimately a play about forgiveness, and to this end there are moments that are extremely moving.
The set, by Jason Sherwood, is all polished oak and neoclassical formality. Above this storied foundation are a dozen portraits of Great Black Leaders, from W.E.B. DuBois to Barack Obama, and they seem to gaze, unblinkingly, on the next generation that’s coming of age below. There is Bobby Marrow (Keith Antone), who talks tough and wears Jordans with his khakis, but whose lineage is purely aristocratic; his uncle (Marty Austin Lamar) is even the Headmaster. There is Bobby’s sidekick, Junior Davis (Eric Lockley), who’s like a yappy dog perpetually at his master’s side. David (Jonathan Burke) is an uptight would-be pastor. And Anthony (Jaysen Wright) is a poor kid from rural Georgia, and ends up being the real hero of the play.
Then, at the center of it all, is Pharus Jonathan Young (Jelani Alladin). Pharus is a queen, and everyone knows it, and he knows that everyone knows it. Despite the taunting, he puts on a brave face, diving head first into academics and extra curriculars and all the things a “Drew Man” should do. Specifically, Pharus can sing really well, and at the beginning of the play he is offered the chance to lead the prestigious school choir. Although he’s in charge, he isn’t given much respect by his fellow choir boys, especially Bobby. That, together with a challenging new class taught by a Civil Rights hero (and sole white character) Mr. Pendleton (Alan Wade), sets the stage for an increasingly tense standoff between Pharus and the world.
But it isn’t all about homophobia, its victims, and perpetrators. Choir Boy is really about how difference struggles to survive in a world that demands uniformity. Sure, a prep school may be an extreme example of enforced conformity, but there are many others: Wall Street, Capitol Hill, the Church? To paraphrase Bill Maher, all-male institutions rarely end well. But even after all the bullshit that Pharus must contend with, he is left with a final weapon, and that is forgiveness. It is this surprising arc that lends Choir Boy such a seemingly abrupt ending, but also, a moral potency that stayed with me long after I left the theatre.
The Studio Theatre’s Choir Boy is a thought-provoking, entertaining, and cathartic experience.
Running Time: One hour and forty five minutes, with no intermission.
‘Choirboy’ at The Studio Theatre by John Stoltenberg in his column Magic Time!
Here’s the playlist of the songs and music of Choirboy.