Regional Reviews: Chicago
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney's 100-minute play, which debuted in 2012, glancingly acknowledges its forbearers, like The Children's Hour (1934) and Tea and Sympathy (1953), in addressing the plight of a gay teacher, or student (in this case) at an all Black prep school. The "gray wainscoting" genre. But he's worth taking seriously: Mr. McCraney (a Steppenwolf Ensemble Member) also won the Oscar (with Barry Jenkins) for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2016 (Moonlight) and is the chairman of the Yale School of Drama. Content advisory: with two shower scenes, Choir Boy also plays (somewhat in the background) as a gay fantasy. But I'm the wrong person to ask about that.
Here, the story quickly moves past those older plays, and any guilt or anguish is vestigial at best. I last saw Lillian Hellman's potboiler The Children's Hour in a college production in St. Louis in 2012–coincidentally the same year Chicago's Theatre 773 last performed Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy. Choir Boy comes down from all that by way of The Ritz (1975) and Sordid Lives (2000). So it's really a jump ball for the next chapter of gay drama, I suppose. It's a perfectly terrific next step in gay theater, but a little too domineering, and calculated, perhaps, on the gay side.
And you see, here we are. The palpable drama in Choir Boy (as smartly directed by ensemble member Kent Gash) in 2022 is not that the gay kid gets physically or psychologically destroyed for being gay. In fact there's no palpable drama to speak of. Instead, there is a palpable joy that he can reason and argue his case, and find his way around everyone else. A child of the 21st century, this highly mutated theater genre now gets a lot of in-school support, and has an almost annoying sense of confidence and righteousness. Were it not for a punch in the face an hour or more into it all, there'd hardly be any story at all. But, ultimately, that attack lacks some power, explored in one of those end-of-the-mystery monologs: remembering "a crime" in the rearview mirror of a fast-moving vehicle. The leading man turns into his own Agatha Christie-type sleuth.
But it's still a fun time. In the lead role (as Pharus) Jos N. Banks moves up from serving as an understudy cast member, to seizing the spotlight with playful intellectual ferocity, and the occasional swiveled hip, after the departure of the original Pharus, Tyler Hardwick. It is a role filled with the confidence of a Scarlett O'Hara, who somehow always got her way in Gone With The Wind. But Scarlett O'Hara was not a teenage boy. And, to quote the boxer Mike Tyson, everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.
Somehow, the physical violence doesn't seem like payback or revenge, after it happens off-stage. It's a literal punch in the face, to stand in for everything that everyone (gay or straight) has to go through, growing up. It just seems like the modern world forgot that could happen, all that quick, or that no one is exempt from the event. Maybe that makes Pharus a perfect modern dramatic hero, who can never quite get out ahead of history. But he communicates his way out of the scandal later. Gayness is seen more as a gift to this central character, though he discovers that some aren't ready for him. Probably me, included.
But no one seems to feel any satisfaction over that punch. The physical assault is well-written as a very subtle expression of another character's internal conflict, and the resolution of it has a magical unspoken quality, as justice is abruptly meted out, thank God for good direction. A lot of it goes by in a flash, and it's up to the audience to figure out what the heck happened in that fleeting moment. As director, Kent Gash, compensates for any lack of power or confrontation in that moment of storytelling. You don't need a translator to figure it all out, but the upshot is that this is a very smoothly, intentionally upbeat story.
La Shawn Banks (no relation to Jos N. Banks, the new Pharus) artfully occupies at least three different characters on stage as Headmaster Marrow: addressing the male students individually; addressing their parents and the regents collectively; and meeting with the students in a group. He comes across as three different men, but always the brooding, care-taking Baptist philosopher of long endurance and forbearance. And who doesn't like a bit of scenery chewing on top of all that, for the good of all concerned? It's totally in character, and a perfect addition to the genre.
The young cast is admirably complex, laying down just the right amount of lowbrow funny as needed or when they're stunned by life's complexity. William Dick is funny and dynamic as Mr. Pendleton, a teacher and later choir director, conjuring a lovely discussion of slavery and the modern Black man's relationship to it. Great old hymns like "Trust and Obey" pulse throughout, nicely sung by the young cast. The show's central plot isn't that spectacular, but all the landscaping around it, in the script and the staging, is beautifully tended. Two singing and dancing solos are terrific, and also very expressive of character. Maybe I need to see the whole thing again, in the context of those two very different musical numbers.
But because Pharus is so dominant and uncomplicated in his view (in a purely mechanical sense), he inadvertently becomes the technical villain of the "plot mechanism," to whom everyone else must gradually rise to the challenge to face, or understand, or accede to.
Even though Pharus is emphatically not the villain in Choir Boy. It's just that, in the upside-down world of modern theater (compared to the 1930's or 1950's), everyone else must make the sometimes painful effort to adapt to his reality. Likewise, the received wisdom of storytelling tells us that the classical villain never has to change. Did you ever think you'd live to see that on stage, in this particular arrangement? Maybe this play is greater than I think it is.
The set by Arnel Sancianco is excellent. But the actual (implied) gay sex moment happens under a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., which is a bit awkward. It's also probably understandable, if you look at the arrangement of the commemorative portraits in the photo (above). Which one can you ever pick, without offending somebody or other? To become the victim of unexpected social commentary, with a shower scene playing under their very nose?
Choir Boy has a sudden resonance in 2022. Last month (June 24) Clarence Thomas, the senior justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, warned that gay rights may have gone too far, and that cases like the 2015 gay marriage ruling (Obergefell v. Hodges) should soon be reexamined. As a result, in a very real sense, this 2012 play is punched right up into the present, by a gesture of constitutional conflict: offstage, of course.
Although Choir Boys is just as cozy as can be, the characters are told of hitting a big rock in the road of life–just as all our Pride Month confidence is cast into doubt. But great theaters, like great actors, depend on great timing like that. And Steppenwolf has it now, in Choir Boy, in the pleasant summer of July.
Choir Boy runs through July 24, 2022, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted (accessible by CTA), Chicago IL. For tickets and information please, visit www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional Production Staff:
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association
** Denotes Member, Steppenwolf Ensemble