Playwright and MacArthur Genius, Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy
is a story which like all McCraney tales, twists and turns as it makes its way to a conclusion or perhaps collision . . . all completely unexpected.
The setting is the Charles Drew Preparatory School, where its seniors are excited about the choir they all belong too. The choir is one its board boasts and the community appreciates. When we meet Pharus, a junior (Jelani Alladin), he is a confident team player. He is a Drew Man and snitching is not something Drew Men ascribe too. He will not tell the Headmaster which boy(s) heckled him as he sang the school anthem for the graduating senior class. Pharus is gay and though the name calling has continued for the entire four years he has been a student at the Charles Drew, Pharus, in his final year, can still hold his head up.
directed by Kent Gash, is a collection of many smaller stories-- that of the boys on scholarship and those with relatives on the board. There are stories of budding relationships and the stigma of same sex love. There are also the stories of institutional bias and inflexibility and the losses incurred when there are no second chances. There are moments of tenderness here as well.
Roommates Pharus and "AJ" or Anthony Justin James (Jaysen Wright), a football star, loves his friend Pharus and is not afraid of their differences. There are quite a few wonderful moments between the boys where AJ, especially in actor, Wright's capable hands we see Pharus's load lifted. AJ is not intimidated by what his family or the other students, think of his sharing a room with a gay kid. He knows that Pharus respects his choices, and is comfortable with the smart youth, who is so talented. He is also not embarrassed or ashamed of his body and his contact with a boy who finds him attractive.
When Headmaster Morrow (Ken Robinson) is looking
for answers to the bullying Pharus experiences and asks AJ what he knows, we learn of
yet another side of this ostracized young man. It is a great scene. AJ speaks of what Pharus has lost, the fear in his eyes and how he misses his friend whose spirit is now gone.
In a homophobic society, same gender attraction is not something one can talk about, even if such is normal. When one of the boys falls in love with Pharus, he doesn't know where to turn or who to talk to. This inability to share his confusing feelings with a parent or teacher to sort things out lead to one of the many unexpected conclusions Choir Boy
is full of. Another parallel story is retired teacher, Mr. Pendleton (Charles Shaw Robinson) who teaches a class on critical thinking.
Pendleton is hailed for his civil rights work with Dr. King, yet in a moment with the boys, we see how close the events of the sixties weight on the scholar. We are not aware of his emotional back story until he explodes quite unexpectedly. It is a beautiful moment in the play. We don't think enough about the war that was the Civil Rights Movement. We call the survivors "veterans," yet act surprised with they suffer from the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. His trigger is the boys' use of the n
-word. The twist is that the veteran is white.
In the Critical Thinking class the boys choose a theory to deconstruct. Pharus takes on Negro Spirituals and comes to the conclusion that there was no coded language used by enslaved persons or captives to plot their escapes. Besides the fact that the sky is one large map and it certainly helped many escapees get north to freedom, there is ample evidence of the coding, seen recently in Taiwo Kehinde-Kujichagulia's "Go Tell It," the story of Harriett Tubman's Christmas Rescue in 1864 (http://www.gotellit.info/#!about/c139r
This unexpected twist is just another point where the audience is thrown a curve ball. Why a character who loves Negro Spirituals so much, would choose this topic is still beyond me, especially given the fact that Pharus is based loosely on the playwright's own life.
It goes without question the musicality within the play, which while not a musical features lovely moments on stage where the audience can just melt into its seats. When the headmaster sings his one solo-- on his knees, the lights low . . . we are like "wow." The talent show where the boys get to share a song their parents might have danced to is another fun aspect of the play, which is heavy and light at the same time.
The few boys who share are Dimitri Woods's complicated "Bobby Marrow," with his sidekick, Rotimi Agbabiaka's Junior Davis (the foreign student); Forest Van Dyke's troubled "David Heard" performs alone for Pendleton a beautiful solo. David is a scholarship student who is worried about money and grades all the time. While Bobby is a legacy student, whose uncle is the Headmaster.
The plot is thick and sticky, indeed (smile).
In the marvelously directed and staged Marin Theatre Company production of "Choir Boy," extended through July 5, there are showers with real water and the boys use soap-- I guess I needed mention the frontal nudity (smile). The point here is how well utilized the stage is, from commencement dais to dorms.
"Choir Boys" allows a shift in perception . . . actor, Jelani Alladin's "Pharus Jonathan Young" is so engaging, so delightful that when he is harmed visibly, I say visibly because this young man has been harmed in so many ways throughout his life, whether this was when his friend disowned him at the barbershop or when he had to hold his own at the corner store, Pharus carries a lot and at Drew, his burden is not at all lightened (except in the lovely moments already mentioned with AJ).
Headmaster Marrow comes to understand how much Pharus bears near the end of the senior year, but by then it is too late. McCraney's character is not a stereotype. Actor Alladin's "Pharus" is a boy his classmates might not love, but whom they can certainly admire even actor Woods's "Bobby," one of the more aggressive of them. Choir Boy makes the case for anti-bullying training, Drew Academy a prime candidate for such. No child should have to suffer what Pharus and his bullies do.
School is not the real world. It is a place children and young adults get to practice or rehearse for a life that gives no second chances. We might not get to heaven in this McCraney production, but it won't be for lack of trying (smile).
For tickets visit http://www.marintheatre.org/productions/choir-boy#artists