Tarell Alvin McCraney won an Oscar. ‘Choir Boy’ marks his Broadway debut.
The Daily Beast
January 8, 2019
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘Choir Boy‘ is a stirringly acted drama about desire, masculinity, and identity at an all-black prep school, while ‘Blue Ridge‘ sees Marin Ireland in rehab.
Choir Boy, a Broadway play about a young black man both enduring homophobia and asserting the right to be himself at the all-black Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, opens—in a quirk of timing—as the critical ripples continue around Kevin Hart’s non-apologies (and now strange, third-person apology) for past homophobia.
Criticism of Hart has come most sharply in the wake of the actor’s widely-criticized interview on Ellen from black gay critics like CNN’s Don Lemon, who wish Hart would set a positive example when it comes to confronting and tackling homophobia, rather than perpetuating it.
Another quirk of circumstance: Choir Boy, first performed in 2012 and here mounted by Manhattan Theatre Club, is written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who last year won (alongside director Barry Jenkins) the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Moonlight. A year after that film also won Best Film, the ceremony is at the center of a controversy about how it should confront Hart’s alleged homophobia.
Directed by Trip Cullman on David Zinn’s simple set, McCraney’s play asks questions around individuals and institutions when it comes to prejudice and harm: In the experience of its lead character Pharus (an excellent Jeremy Pope), the play asks how open and safe can a teenager like Pharus be, and how fragile acceptance and progress is; how far do schools want to go to become accepting and also understanding stewards of the LGBT pupils, or pupils suspected and then bullied for being LGBT, in their midst?
In Pharus, the choir leader at his school, McCraney has created a character who seems, deceptively, easy to read. He is very funny and very camp. He also stands up for himself with wit, strength, and withering shade when confronted by the bully Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson). When Bobby wonders why his uncle, Headmaster Marrow (an avuncularly frustrated Chuck Cooper), has put him on trash duty, Pharus says he’s probably waiting for Bobby to take himself out.
Yet Pharus is also angry: Why is he being made out to be the difficult one? Why does his school see him as the problem, rather than the homophobia being leveled against him? One thing Choir Boy puts very effectively on trial is the impotence of institutions when charged with protecting bullied and victimized LGBT people, and establishing an environment of respect and equal treatment.
LGBT kids at school suffer the worst kind of victim blaming and shaming when it comes to their own bullying. “Honor” is invoked as the cornerstone of how this school’s young men should behave, and what the school stands for (alongside its banner to trust and obey), but honor and trust is in short supply in how Pharus is treated.
Choir Boy has grown in theater size since its 2013 off-Broadway success, and some of the elements have grown beautifully in accordance, prime among them Pope’s performance. The character never defines himself as gay. He doesn’t deny it, and indeed there is evidence later on that he is, or is attracted to men. The shower scenes in the play not only reveal a lot of flesh, but also hidden desires (and more fear). But, he says: “Sick of people calling me something I ain’t doing. I’m just Pharus.”
Pharus inhabits a world where fear and strength co-exist. He has heard the homophobia, the whispers of “sissy” and “faggot” the play begins with, he has experienced how little is done about it. He has learned to live inside himself, and Pope’s sparky intuitiveness is the glue between character and audience.
While Pharus is at school, he is in a prison built from a necessary self-repression-to-survive. This is a prison Pharus shouldn’t have to inhabit and he knows it. McCraney and Pope give him strength, smart clapbacks, and also fear as he confronts Bobby’s relentless victimization. “I held on. I held out. Like I was taught to do,” he tells Bobby of what he has endured from him.
The question that keeps Pharus up at night, he tells his headmaster, is whether one should want to be feared or respected. He leads the choir, and eventually will kick out Bobby for his nasty hostility. Yet he is the one who must explain and justify himself.
Pharus asks the headmaster if he should be more humble and groveling, to “Thank Drew for letting me live along side these good other strapping mean behind boys who don’t have no problem displaying all kinds of bad behavior, and ill will towards me. But if I remove one of them from my presence so that I can think long enough, without someone drawing attention to my swish or my wrist, I need to be put down?… When can I just show up and do my job and everyone applaud? Is that allowed at Drew? Is there anyone looking out for me?”
Headmaster Marrow aims to get to the bottom of all the bullying and nastiness, but seems unable to, and so—and this is the play’s biggest oddity—calls in a white choir teacher Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton) to instill some rigor and gentlemanly order in the ranks.
Pendleton is the only white character on stage, which you might think would be significant, but it is not apparently, except when it comes to his disgust with the black characters on stage using the ‘n’ word, which he makes clear, and tells the boys so.
But what is this white character, albeit an avowed, active ally of the Civil Rights Movement, doing as a figure of such moral authority? And why does he feel so lacking? You can barely hear what Pendleton says, and he seems more doddering than authoritative. His presence and purpose in a play about black masculinity and homophobia is baffling.
Studded amid the action are a collection of spirituals, sung beautifully by the company, sometimes as the choir within the play and sometimes acting as a choir outside of it. The songs are beautiful, and beautifully sung, if sometimes puzzlingly placed. Occasionally, they underline something we have watched, sometimes they do not. Pharus says not all spirituals have a coded message, as the boys have been taught; sometimes their power is in their rhythm and melody.
Pharus’ similar refusal to obviously define himself, or for the play to define him, is key to the play (and very real and plausible) and yet dramatically it is also a flaw. Our focus remains on Pharus’ singing, his determination to be the best, and countering what could undermine this.
But we don’t fully get to know that character right in front of us. Just who and what is Pharus attracted to? This is central to one of the play’s big twists. And yet the twist feels odd, because it makes little sense and fizzles to very little dramatically.
Another mystery, again perhaps intentional, is Pharus’ relationship with roommate AJ (John Clay III). This is the most beautifully played relationship on stage, with ambiguity written into every line and glance. Does AJ secretly want Pharus, does Pharus want AJ? Whatever else, AJ is friend and protector, and there is a beautiful scene towards the end of the play in which Pharus, by now sporting a black eye, avails himself of AJ’s sensitively deployed barber skills.
Like a lot in the play, that relationship keeps you wondering just as much as Pharus’ resistance to declare what he is. If (utterly understandably) fear is Pharus’ principle reason for keeping quiet, why doesn’t the play let him unpack that fear more? The play, like Moonlight, unloads key pieces of information—here about parental rejection and death—and lets them sit unelaborated upon.
These oddities do not undermine Pope and Clay’s excellent performances, or the power of a story about the cost of coming out and the bravery of confronting and confirming your desire on your own terms in an unsafe environment. But the play’s own coyness when orbiting its coy central character distances Pharus from us. Perhaps that is meaningful too; if we want young people like Pharus to feel more part of the world, the onus is on the world to help make that so. In the meantime, Pharus and others like him will carry on, singing as strongly and proudly as they can.
Abby Rosebrock’s play is set in a Western North Carolina rehab halfway house where Marin Ireland’s Alison is the latest arrival, and which is also inhabited by Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd) and Wade (Kyle Beltran), with Grace (Nicole Lewis) and Hern (Chris Stack) keeping a watchful eye over practicalities and sensitivities.
The play is a drama studded with comedy; both tough and clear-sighted about addiction and trauma, and also warm and very funny. It wants the best for these damaged characters, who are struggling to repair themselves and support each other. As ever, feelings get in the way and here the stakes are that much higher because these people are damaged already. How much more can they take if their trust is abused, if their hearts are once again broken, if they are lied to? All are living with much higher stakes as they try to piece together and re-plot their broken lives.
Rosebrock and director Taibi Magar plot a sensitive path through familiar material. Adam Rigg’s set for the most part, until a last-minute dramatic transformation, is set in the drab living room of the facility, which—added to the size of the Linda Gross Theater—gives real focus to the performances of the company. Ireland is as commanding as ever as a teacher whose light hillbilly twang conceals not just a literary knowledge, but also devastating hurt and wounds.
If you saw were as wowed by Ireland as this critic was when she appeared as Alma in the CSC’s Summer and Smoke revival last year, you will be just as impressed by the calibrations she gives to Alison’s brittle bravado here. Kyle Beltran impressively grounds the young Wade with honesty and humor, while Kristolyn Lloyd (ex-Dear Evan Hanson) plays Cherie with a wan fury upon learning where her cards have unluckily fallen.
Peter Mark Kendall’s burly Cole is the newcomer who may or not bring trouble. We first hear he is a racist, and so we are guarded as the house’s residents when he enters; and his stillness isn’t warm. He too is running on the same kind of tenderized nerves and desire for recovery as the others. Blue Ridge is a snapshot of lives in transition, with no neat ending but an insistence that honesty with yourself is the most important first step to becoming as near as possible to healthy again.