NEW YORK, NY – “Choir Boy,” which recently opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway, begins with a gospel song. The lead tenor is Pharus, an extremely effeminate young man. Behind him another student whispers homophobic slurs trying to sabotage what could be considered Pharus’ audition for the role of leader in next year’s choir.
This opening perfectly sets the tone for the next 100-minutes as Pharus struggles with bullies, authority figures who are no help to him, and living with other young men desperate for adult guidance.
“Choir Boy” is an engaging work that is often riveting. It confronts the issue of gender identity in such a way that you are forced to realize it is not only the problems of the gay central character that matters, it is the impact that fear and hate has on every member of a community.
The community in “Choir Boy” is the students and staff of Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. The religious-based institution is described as “a prestigious boarding school that is dedicated to the education of strong, ethical black men.” Obviously, the behavior of some of the students is in direct contrast with the values of the school.
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, best known for writing the Academy Award-winning film “Moonlight”, adds complexity to the story as Pharus, who, as marvelously played by Jeremy Pope, is always lovable - but has some character traits that can be irritable. He is a gifted young man, but on occasion, deliberately grandstands to overshadow others to assure his talents are recognized. And, too, the glib young man is able to manipulate a situation to his own benefit.
However, to the homophobes, his greatest flaw is that he is not ashamed of his sexuality. Pharus is a superior, young, black male who offends others mostly because he is unrepentantly gay. He threatens others by being a proud, talented, black gay man.
This does not mean he does not suffer or lament his lot in life. He knows he is judged by others and is often diminished because of his sexual identity. Thus, he is a victim of a narrowminded society guided by archaic rules. Indeed, adding to the texture of the play is that Pharus’ adhering to student code of not telling on others, exacerbates his victim status.
In performance, Jeremy Pope is heart-stopping as Pharus. You love him, fear for him and wish him well – knowing that will not happen. Pope has a wonderful presence which fills the stage of the Samuel Friedman Theatre with charm and wit. He has a lovely tenor voice which elevates the many illuminating gospel numbers – especially “Motherless Child” - that add joy, depth and insight to the production. Director Trip Cullman keeps all the provocative elements in balance.
Playwright McCraney fills “Choir Boy” with beautiful moments, such as an explanation of the roots of gospel music to the black community and a memorable story about a young man’s experience in a barbershop. However, in some ways the material is wanting. It appears that McCraney wants to write a profound tragedy, but he fails to go to the edge with that desire. Holding back some emotional pain reduces the hurt within the play, but it does so at a cost.
Too, he creates fascinating supporting characters, most of whom can use some fleshing out. J. Quinton Johnson creates a despicable bully with Bobby, but the portrayal would be even richer if the audience knew more about the character’s relationship with his mother, which is only alluded to rather than explained. Caleb Eberhardt’s portrayal of the shy, nervous David suggests he is the true tragic figure in the play, but the portrait could be helped with more backstory. This is true for almost every supporting character.
“Choir Boy” is chillingly contemporary, but it’s true tragic nature is that the themes in the play are neither new nor specific to our American culture. Everything touched upon in this modern play was also addressed in “Spring Awakening,” a play about the sexual frustration of young people, written in 1890 by German playwright Frank Wedekind.
This is not a knock on the material, but rather a statement about the timeless universality of the themes in the play. It is worth seeing.
“Choir Boy” continues at the Samuel Friedman Theater on 47thStreet in New York City through February 24. It is a powerful, provocative drama. For tickets contact Telecharge 212-239-6200.