A gay African-American prep school student comes of age in the Geffen Playhouse West Coast Premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play-with-music Choir Boy, exquisitely performed by an all-around superb cast and impeccably helmed by its original New York/Atlanta director.
Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope) is the teenager in question, “an effeminate young man of color” who just happens to be blessed with the voice of an angel, one we first hear at the Charles R. Drew Prep School For Boys’ 49th Commencement Exercises.
Unfortunately for the gifted young vocalist, whispered taunts of “sissy” and “faggot-ass nigga” interrupt his self-assured rendition of the prep school anthem, and though these homophobic slurs only temporarily undermine Pharus’s confident solo, the brief pause that he takes provokes a summons to the office of Headmaster Harrow (Michael A. Shepperd).
Pharus does eventually reveal the reason for his solo interruptus, but opts to follow the Charles R. Drew students’ Code Of Honor by refusing to name the culprit—who just happens to be the headmaster’s tough-guy nephew Bobby (Donovan Mitchell).
Whatever reticence Pharus might have about ratting out a classmate does not prevent the recently elected leader of the school’s a cappella choir from giving Bobby the boot, hell having no fury like an effeminate young man of color scorned.
In the meantime, Headmaster Harrow has invited a retired Drew professor (Leonard Kelly-Young as Mr. Pendleton) to return to campus to teach a course in Creative Thinking and serve as advisor to remaining choir members Pharus, his athlete roommate AJ (Grantham Coleman), the religiously devout David (Caleb Eberhardt), and Bobby acolyte Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe).
Over the course of Choir Boy’s absorbing ninety minutes, Pharus battles homophobia, seeks out love, and discovers friendship of the truest sort, all of which set him on the path towards being all that he can be in a world that isn’t particularly friendly to limp-wristed gay boys, no matter how talented and gumption-filled they might be.
Choir Boy is the third Tarell Alvin McCraney play I’ve seen and the first I’ve loved, In The Red And Brown Water having seemed more about performances, direction, choreography, and design than the play itself, and not even brilliant performances, direction, choreography, and design having been able to rescue me from the doldrums of The Brothers Size.
Choir Boy’s dialog retains McCraney’s trademark blend of blend of lyrical speech and street vernacular (though thankfully not those spoken stage directions), however this time it feels authentic.
More importantly, McCraney has created a cast of characters so vivid, three-dimensional, and downright real that even the most “villainous” among them will end up touching your heart.
That’s not to say that Choir Boy isn’t without its shortcomings. Pharus’s story arc gets sidetracked by classroom discussions that may heat up already smoldering tensions but lead nowhere in particular. Though ostensibly set in a present-day time frame, McCraney’s boys would seem to exist in a memory-play world without modern technology (one of them even makes a collect call home), or a sense of how much the world has progressed in the years since Stonewall—and particularly in the last ten. Even Choir Boy’s most contemporary songs are from the 1970s (L.T.D.’s “Love Ballad”) and ‘80s (New Edition’s “Boys To Men”).
Also, for some theatergoers at least, seeing “yet another” tormented sissy boy’s coming-out tale might provoke a bit of a seen-that-done-that yawn.
Still, there is something fresh and new about having as protagonist a sissy boy of a different hue and a play set in an environment many of us may never have heard of. (I was scarcely aware that there were African-American “History Boys” in contemporary America.)
Most importantly, characters as richly drawn as Pharus, Bobby, AJ, David, and Junior and as gorgeously acted (and equally gorgeously sung) as they are by Pope, Mitchell, Coleman, Eberhardt, and Ashe override any quibbles this reviewer might otherwise have, drawn in as I was by their work on the Geffen Playhouse stage.
Pope, who has played Pharus in New York, Atlanta, and now Los Angeles, gets the evening’s plummest assignment, McCraney having created so complex a character as to defy easy stereotyping. By turns adorable and calculating, petulant and heart-wrenching, Pharus is a young actor/singer’s dream role, and Pope’s performance is a playwright’s dream come true.
He is joined at the Geffen by a trio of previous castmates, Coleman from New York, Eberhardt from Atlanta, and Ashe from both productions, along with newbie Choir Boy Mitchell, and all are sensational.
Coleman gives us the straight (but not narrow) roommate of any gay boy’s dreams, and if the scene in which AJ gives Pharus’s hair a trim doesn’t touch your heart, it must be made of stone.
Eberhardt’s decent but tormented aspiring preacher and Ashe’s refreshingly defiant devil’s disciple are drawn with equal authenticity and depth of feeling.
Most wondrous of all may well be Mitchell’s Bobby, every iota of the Carnegie Mellon grad’s boy-next-doorness vanishing under Bobby’s Menace-II-Pharus skin while giving revelatory glimpses of the wounded soul hiding beneath.
As he did in his Scenie-winning turn in Celebration Theatre’s The Color Purple, Shepperd once again proves himself a consummate chameleon as the school’s authoritative yet not unsympathetic headmaster.
Last but not least is Kelly-Young’s rumpled Civil Rights Movement vet, personal losses suffered alongside Dr. Martin Luther King making him uniquely if unexpectedly qualified to instruct his students in the ugliness of their racial epithet of choice.
All of the above benefit enormously from having Choir Boy’s New York/Atlanta director Trip Cullman once again guiding and shaping their performances and Jason Michael Webb once again providing the play’s pitch-perfect musical direction and four-&-five-part vocal arrangements.
Choir Boy’s West Coast Premiere also reunites most of the production’s original design team. Scenic designer David Zinn’s stunning fire-engine red set morphs from classroom to dorm room to showers in a jiffy, with equally impressive designs from NYC-based Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) and Fitz Patton (sound). New this time round is L.A.’s very own E.B. Brooks, whose uniforms, robes, and casual garb add to the production’s authenticity.
Prudish audiences should be warned (and those of a less prudish bent alerted) that Choir Boy features a hilariously played few seconds of jaw-dropping full-frontal nudity in addition to a good deal more—or should that be less?—extended nudity of the full-backal sort.
Jill Gold is production stage manager and Kyra Hansen assistant stage manager. Casting director Phyllis Schuringa, CSA, once again works casting wonders at the Geffen. (Understudies Reggie Burrell, Jaime Cepero, Austin Scott, and David Willis cover Choir Boy’s seven roles.) Original Manhattan Theatre Club casting directors Nancy Piccione, CSA, and Kelly Gillespie also get program credit.
If Tom Cruise had Renee Zelwegger at “Hello” in Jerry Maguire, then Tarell Alvin McCraney and Jeremy Pope had this reviewer at the very first notes of Pharus’s “Trust And Obey,” and held me in their grasp all the way up to and including Choir Boy’s breathtaking final fadeout.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
September 30, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont