Review: Raising a Joyful New Voice in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘Choir Boy’ | Modern Society of USA

Review: Raising a Joyful New Voice in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘Choir Boy’

Review: Raising a Joyful New Voice in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘Choir Boy’

You haven’t seen a character like Pharus before. Certainly not on Broadway.

It’s not just that he’s “an effeminate young man of color,” as Tarell Alvin McCraney thumbnails him in the script for “Choir Boy.” That’s like calling Evan Hansen a teen with a twitch.

Which isn’t to say that Pharus, a student at an elite, mostly black all-male prep school, doesn’t have his share of mannerisms. His limbs seem to flutter without regard to propriety or one another; his voice leaps from dudgeon to delight in huge swoops of emotion; his wit lashes out in pyrotechnical displays of snap and swish. He is reflexively provocative. As the star tenor in the school’s choir, he refers to his throat, both piously and not, as “the Lord’s passageway.”

So he’s definitely a handful of a gay boy, disconcerting his schoolmates and headmaster even if he’s still a virgin. But by the time Jeremy Pope, making a sensational Broadway debut in the role, gets through with him, that sketch has been filled in, roughed up and turned inside out — and with it a world of tired ideas about what it means for a man to be strong.

When “Choir Boy,” which opened on Tuesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, sticks to that idea, focusing on Pharus’s discovery, through exuberant music, of the brawn inside his perceived weakness, it is captivating and fresh. The portrait of his adversaries — choral and otherwise — is less so.

The play begins with one of those adversaries, Bobby, whispering slurs to fluster Pharus as he sings the school’s prayerful anthem, “Trust and Obey.” Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson) is an obvious hothead homophobe, complete with mama issues, but he is also the nephew of Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper) — so it’s Pharus who gets in trouble. Even so, Pharus refuses to rat Bobby out, in misguided deference to the school’s code of honor.

This is the first of many plot points that feel both obvious and false, like pieces of the wrong puzzle ham-hammered into place. Too frequently, information that if delivered sooner would have forestalled the plot completely is delivered hastily later, as if to sweep it under a dorm bed. In any case, Trip Cullman’s tonally blurry staging for the Manhattan Theater Club does not help you understand what to make of such logical inconsistencies, though it is at least swift enough to keep you from dwelling on them.

But a similar problem eats away at the credibility of most of the characters as written. Two of the choir boys, Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe of “Queen Sugar”) and David (Caleb Eberhardt), get approximately one trait each. Junior is pleasantly dim; David is tortured by something you’ll see coming a mile away.

The adults have it worse. Even the venerable Mr. Cooper can’t make Marrow coherent in his fecklessness, and a subplot in which a retired teacher returns to the school to lead a seminar in “thinking” has the subtlety of a shoehorn. It’s not just that the teacher, played charmingly by Austin Pendleton, is a caricature of a fuddy-duddy. (As part of an assignment, he suggests that the students “get i-mail or g-tunes.”) It’s that he is used like a piece of furniture, with no story of his own, for others to walk around or trip over.

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It likewise becomes difficult to sort out how much of the action results from ambient gay animus toward Pharus and how much from his own lordliness: He’s the best singer, and he knows it. (His name means “lighthouse.”) With good cause, Marrow calls him gifted, ambitious and “operating.”

It’s true that in the performance of Mr. Pope, who will star later this season in the Temptations musical “Ain’t Too Proud,” Pharus is spectacular. But, at least while crooning and dancing to hymns, pop songs and spirituals including “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Boys to Men” and “Love Ballad,” so is everyone. The gorgeous numbers that intersperse the action — with musical direction by Jason Michael Webb and expressive movement by Camille A. Brown — keep throwing water on the conflict.

Still, I don’t want to focus too much on the problems that Mr. McCraney has not solved in the years since Manhattan Theater Club produced the Off Broadway premiere of “Choir Boy,” also starring Mr. Pope, in 2013. (A reference to “locker room talk” and a Wakanda poster on a dorm room wall suffice to bring the action up to date.) In earlier plays, including “The Brothers Size” and “Head of Passes,” his strengths have never been the canonical ones anyway, in which character leads to action that in turn creates dramatic architecture.

Rather, the best part of his work favors color, mood and unspoken feeling — attributes that certainly inform the Oscar-winning movie “Moonlight,” based on his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” Here those qualities are especially evident in the most intimate scenes, including one in which Pharus gets his hair trimmed by his roommate, Anthony (John Clay III), a too-good-to-be-true hunk and straight ally. As written, Anthony’s platonic lovingness may reflect some degree of wish fulfillment, but as played it seems beautifully plausible: the kind of wish that opens a door to the future.

Whether Mr. McCraney is formulating a new aesthetic or just extending an old one familiar from “issue” plays of the past, the result is a script, or at least a production, that is far more powerful than its flaws might indicate. It is especially successful in suggesting how a victim of prejudice, blamed as the source of the problem instead of those who victimize him, may eventually come to see himself that way. “All the great I got get diminished,” Pharus complains bitterly.

But “Choir Boy” also suggests how someone as talented as Pharus may find a way out of that trap. When he argues in class that it’s the joy of spirituals, more than any imputed secret messages they may contain, that demonstrates their real strength, we know that he is speaking also of those who sing them. Only by raising his natural voice, with whatever swish and swagger it contains, will Pharus set himself, and others, free.

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