Theatre Review by Marc Miller - January 8, 2019
Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Trip Cullman. Scenic & costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Original music & sound design by Fitz Patton. Hair & Make-Up Design by Cookie Jordan. Fight director: Thomas Schall. Movement: Camille A. Brown. Cast: Nicholas L. Ashe, Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, John Clay III, Chuck Cooper, Caleb Eberhardt, Marcus Gladney, J. Quinton Johnson, Austin Pendleton, Jeremy Pope.
Part of the difficulty is structural: Fine choral singing, often-fine drama, but how neatly do they coexist? We're at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a prestigious black upstate institution, which, in David Zinn's efficient design, is dominated by red cinder-block construction spread out among leafy fields. The school is about to mark its 50th anniversary, and Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper) would like to celebrate with a joyful noise unto the Lord. Drew's choir is reputable, maybe even approaching legendary, but it's hit a rough patch. That's the source of the drama, and the sweet sounds the choir makes are the source of the concert. The two entities run on parallel tracks, and the transitions from song to scene and back can feel arbitrary and unmotivated.
We'd like to know more about this place: How did it grow, how is it funded, and how does it recruit? We only pick up shards of relevant information from listening in on conversations among the boys, which, coming out of McCraney's pen, are colloquial and profane and occasionally funny, but frequently lead down blind alleys. The focus of attention, it's immediately clear, is Pharus (Jeremy Pope), the gifted junior who's just been appointed to lead the choir next year. A tenor, he's dynamic, musically knowledgeable, dedicated, and, cue the conflict, effeminate or "swish," as his chief adversary, Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson), has it. Bobby, who's the headmaster's nephew and clearly hanging on through nepotism, is a naturally disruptive force. Onstage, at commencement, he whispers taunts at Pharus mid-school anthem, causing the latter to temporarily freeze, and setting up an elaborate whose-side-are-you-on among the boys.
Who will end up in whose corner? There's AJ (John Clay III), Pharus's roommate, a natural athlete with a formidable physique and, McCraney's first surprise, a character with nuance and grace that go far beyond just "jock." There's David (Caleb Eberhardt), Pharus's former roommate and ally, a would-be pastor suffering iffy grades, family troubles, and personal issues that would constitute spoilers. And there's Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe), a hanger-on of shifting allegiance. Four other line-less boys (Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, and Marcus Gladney) complete the vocal ensemble and help execute Camille A. Brown's rafter-raising moves when the occasion calls for dance.
The choir's currently without a sponsor, the designated teacher being pregnant and on leave, leaving Pharus relatively free to run it as he sees fit. That begins with ejecting Bobby, for whom retaliation will always be the first resort. Tempers flare, and more supervision is obviously needed, so Marrow calls in a former teacher a Mr. Pendleton, who, in a delightful coincidence, is played by an actual Pendleton, the one named Austin. Introducing himself to the boys with an awkward attempt at racial humor, as he's the only white guy around, and flailing his arms as only Austin Pendleton can, he's a peacekeeper of uncertain ability, and he has a personal history that will reverberate in unexpected and compelling ways.
So, Pharus just how gay is he? His sexual history is kept deliberately ambiguous until the reveal is absolutely necessary, but his proclivities aren't much in doubt. Jeremy Pope will draw a lot of attention for this performance: He sings beautifully, he really knows how to move, and roles for young actors don't come any meatier. But from Row G, at least, his comes across as a look-at-me-I'm-acting turn, a grab for the spotlight that contrasts with the naturalism surrounding him. Such showiness is a trait shared only by Johnson, for whom it's somewhat justified, as he's playing an even bigger extrovert. Maybe Trip Cullman directed both actors to out-assert the rest of the cast, but the disparity in energy is noticeable, and jarring. Cooper, while well above the late-30s-to-early-40s described in McCraney's script, is an ideal headmaster resolute, by-the-book, and cranky. Eberhardt underplays excellently, sending David's decency and panic palpably across the proscenium. And Clay is wonderful. He's helped by a scene between AJ and Pharus, the penultimate, that's roughly analogous to the one in Call Me by Your Name that made so many young gay men wish they had a dad like Michael Stuhlberg. Such openhearted sensitivity has to be played very carefully, neither pandering for sympathy nor pushing the emotion away, and Clay's up to it.
The Samuel J. Friedman audience, neither as senior nor as white as MTC's norm, really comes alive at this and other points, applauding scene buttons and murmuring frequent "mm-hmm"s as McCraney unveils another canny observation on the current states of striving, religion, and homophobia in the African-American community. Think about it: It's a community where getting ahead frequently has hinged on sports, or hip-hop, or other showbiz routes. If you don't excel at any of those, and if you offend that community's tendency toward hypermasculinity and substantial churchgoing element, what do you do? Pharus has a good, long monologue about how gospel music was an escape route for slaves, in terms both spiritual (it made them feel better) and practical (it may have contained coded messages). And he has another, which Pope aces, on how Pharus learned at a tender age how he was different, and how badly it hurt to discover it. In such moments, Choir Boy reaches the lofty heights it has set for itself. In others, it feels like it's marking time. McCraney, who wrote the source material that became the Oscar-winning Moonlight, is to be congratulated for giving a minority subgroup a voice it needs and has too often lacked. But has he written a tidy, concise, consistently absorbing and probing play? Not quite.