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Theatre in Review: Choir Boy (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Even with the current wave of gay-themed plays landing on Broadway in the last season or so, Choir Boy finds something new to say. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney wastes no time, crystallizing his original, provocative premise in the opening moments: It is graduation day at Drew, a boys' prep school with an all-black student body, and the choir -- one of the institution's most prestigious features -- is performing the spiritual "When We Walk with the Lord." Leading the ensemble is Pharus, a junior and the ensemble's vocal star. As his voice fills the room, however, Bobby, who is standing directly behind him, repeatedly hisses the word "sissy." When this doesn't have the intended effect, Bobby ups the ante with an epithet both racist and homophobic. Pharus is momentarily stopped in his tracks, thrown by such a naked display of hostility.

He recovers quickly, but his brief moment of onstage disarray lands him in the office of Headmaster Marrow; this relatively minor slip happened during the biggest event of the academic year, in front of the board members who keep the school afloat, and he is sufficiently upset to threaten the withdrawal of Pharus' scholarship. The boy is cornered: According to the school's unofficial code, no student can rat on another; making things even more awkward, Bobby is Marrow's nephew. Nevertheless, the truth nearly comes out, and Marrow, noticing one of the boy's effeminate gestures, counsels him, saying, "You gotta tighten up so that people don't assume too much. Like all men, hold some things in. See, your private life...well, those are private. Don't let it all out. Keep 'em guessing or...at least so they can't ask."

This speech, a little tour de force of evasions and euphemisms, lays bare the treacherous landscape of Pharus' daily life, which is spent half in and half out of the closet. His "swish" manner -- Bobby's word -- is tolerated as long as his sexuality is neither affirmed nor acted upon. Indeed, he is prized for his talent and is awarded the high honor of leading the choir; then again, he is given no guidance in dealing with Bobby's taunts and physical threats. Everyone is in on the game, but the rules are constantly shifting. Faced with one potentially too-candid situation after another, does he deflect or deny? Change the subject or make a joke of it? The wrong choice could get him a black eye, or, possibly, expelled.

Lest you think that Pharus is all victim, McCraney is careful to highlight the boy's ambition and sharp-elbowed manner. "I've never missed the key of G since I was three," he says, preening over his talent. Taking over the choir, he is quick to drive out Bobby, leaving AJ, another student, to observe, "It look like you trying to be the only tenor left standing." Aiming a verbal poison dart directly at Marrow's nervous system, he recalls how, according to school lore, the choir was "founded by the second headmaster, who heard a group of boys singing in the showers and decided to use a choir to gain attention and financial support." He adds, pointedly, "Why the headmaster was close enough to hear them boys singing in the showers, I'll never know."

With his slightly hooded eyes and a prominently jutting jaw that lends him a permanently insolent air -- he seems to be looking down on the world from his own private perch, forever finding it wanting -- Jeremy Pope is ideally cast as Pharus. The character is a tensile mass of nerves, contradiction piled on contradiction, improvising his way through life as best he can. Bitterly aware that the onus is on him at all times -- "I know there are things you can't control, but you have control over your presentation," Marrow unhelpfully tells him -- he is at one moment the court jester, the next a prosecuting attorney pressing for the death penalty. Underneath it all is a vulnerable, confused young man, wary about what the world holds for him. More than once, he asks, "Would you rather be feared or respected, Headmaster?" The possibility of love never seems to enter his head.

Pharus' life on a psychological tightrope is honestly and fearlessly rendered throughout Choir Boy, for which the director, Trip Cullman, has provided a sleek, fast-moving, generally well-acted production. The playwright has built a number of spirituals into the action, each of them delivered by the company of golden-voiced young men, rendered in harmonies so beautiful they can bring tears to your eyes. In the most emotionally rich of these, the tense atmosphere in the shower room is broken by a heartrending performance of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," providing them with a rare moment of communion. Several numbers are accompanied by strenuous choreography, by Camille A. Brown, that takes the precise measures of the young men's anger, confusion, and (sometimes) yearning.

Among the cast, there are fine contributions from John Clay III as AJ, Pharus' gentle, if occasionally nervous, confidant; Chuck Cooper, as always the soul of professionalism, as the well-intentioned, misguided Headmaster Marrow; and Caleb Eberhardt, upright, yet oddly cagey, as a young man tapped for the ministry with whom Pharus has unfinished business. Austin Pendleton contributes some oddly tentative line readings as a retired teacher brought back to conduct a seminar in creative thinking (admittedly, a fuzzily conceived role), and J. Quinton Johnson mugs rather badly as Bobby, whose animus toward Pharus isn't clearly explained in the script.

Indeed, a certain sketchiness plagues Choir Boy throughout. The other students aren't well defined, and even the principals could use some fleshing out. Bobby's family problems, centering on the death of his mother, are indicated but not probed, and Pharus' problematic relationship with his mother -- no father is ever mentioned -- is given but a cursory glance. (One of the production's most heartbreaking moments features Pharus on the phone with her, trying to secure her promise to attend his graduation; his face falls as he replies, resignedly, "Right, you don't have to be here to know I graduated.")

Facilitating the production's rapid pace is David Zinn's unit set, featuring a curved upstage wall of glazed red brick, which sometimes rises to reveal a landscape of trees; it quickly adapts to a variety of locations, with a unit representing Pharus and AJ's room occasionally rolling in from upstage. Peter Kaczorowski's subtly detailed lighting -- which makes fine use of pattern work during the songs -- is typically marvelous. Zinn's costumes, which are heavy on school uniforms, are solid, as is Fitz Patton's original music and sound design. The stunning vocal arrangements are by musical director Jason Michael Webb.

One of the oddities of Choir Boy is that it is a play about high school seniors and juniors in which no one ever talks about college. It's hard to believe that someone as smart and talented as Pharus wouldn't be hard at work on an escape plan involving a top school, where he could feel more at home in his own skin. Still, McCraney conjures this hothouse world with mordant wit and warmth for each of his characters. And he isn't interested in painting any false rainbows, allowing the curtain to fall on something less than a moment of triumph for Pharus. What happens to him next is anyone's guess: Has his experience at Drew scarred his soul, or has it armed him with crucial tools for survival? It's a tantalizing question. -- David Barbour

(11 January 2019)

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