After reading the reviews of the New York production of CHOIR BOY and reading the script, I was eager to see how it would play. I have written a lot on gay drama. In fact a colleague and I are now putting together an anthology of dramas about gay teens (we wanted to include CHOIR BOY but couldn't get the rights). In general I'm skeptical of "victim" plays of any kind. One of the many things that bothered me about the dismal musical HARMONY upstairs at the Alliance is that it emphasizes the victim status of the Comedian Harmonists over their talent: compared to six million others during the holocaust, their victim status isn't very extreme. Our society is full of people claiming victim status. Even zillionaire right wing pundits claim to be victims of the liberal media. Victimhood does't make good drama--how people evade the status of victim or overcome it does. On the surface, Tarrell Alvin McCraney's CHOIR BOY seems to be a play about a Black teenage boy being victimized by homophobia at a private school for African-American young men. In fact, the play is far richer and more positive than that.
CHOIR BOY begins at a graduation ceremony at the Charles Drew Prep School for Boys. Part of the graduation ritual is the newly elected leader of the school choir singing the school anthem. This year the leader is Pharus Jonathan Young. As Pharus starts singing he -- and we-- hear "sissy" and 'faggot" hissed from somewhere in the choir, slurs this young man has heard before in his life. Pharus is not only gay--he is effeminate, literally limp wristed. For many reasons (as Phyllis Diller used to quip, "There are reasons, but no excuse"), African-Americans have had difficulty accepting the homosexuals in their midst. It is also fair to say that even the gay community has had difficulty with effeminacy: "straight looking and acting" has been the watchcry. What has made it possible for Pharus to absorb the insults he has experienced are the school, which despite the homophobic slurs has seemed a relatively safe space, and music. Pharus is not the first gay man to find refuge in the arts. He also has his own sense of justice. Pharus repeatedly asks the headmaster, "Would you rather be feared or respected?" In his kingdom -- the choir -- he tries to be feared. He first fires the boy who taunted him from the chorus, escalating a bitter feud between them that Pharus cannot possibly win. The homophobic boy is the son of a member of the school's board of trustees and nephew of the headmaster. Pharus is cunning enough to be able to manipulate the headmaster. There's a toughness as well as vulnerability.
The chorus is represented by Pharus and four other young men. There's Bobby, who hates Pharus and repeatedly calls him a "nigger" and a "faggot" -- the two most hateful terms imaginable. Bobby's constant companion Junior is small and not very bright, the sort of person who links up with the bully out of self-defense. The other two young men represent the two kinds of love Pharus experiences: brotherly love in the form of Pharus's devoted roommate A.J. and sexual and romantic love in the form of David, the most religious of the group. Because of the love these three young men can express, CHOIR BOY is anything but a depressing play. Pharus may not realize it, but he is loved even more than he's hated. The faculty and administration are represented by the somewhat clueless headmaster and an elderly white teacher.
The play has moments of true beauty, particularly in the scenes between Pharus and AJ and the moments when David struggles with the conflict between his faith and his love for Pharus. There are also funny moments. Pharus has the sense of irony and the bitchiness of an old-fashioned queen. And there is a lot of singing of spirituals within and between scenes.
The cast, many veterans of the recent New York production, couldn't be better, particularly Jeremy Pope, John Stewart and Caleb Eberhardt (Pharus, AJ and David). These three actors give performances as honest and touching as anything I have seen in a long time. When I think back on performances I have seen over the past year only the acting of the current perfect revival of THE GLASS MENAGERIE tops them. The other two boys, Joshua Boone as Pharus's adversary Bobby and Nicholas L. Ashe as his sidekick Junior, have less to do but are fine. The five boys also make an amazing a cappella singing ensemble. The veteran actors in the cast aren't quite as good, partly because their parts aren't as interesting. Trip Cullman has staged it effectively and brought out the best in his actors.
Tarrell Alvin McCraney just won a MacArthur genius award. His output has been uneven. I thought WIG OUT was promising and was impressed by much of THE BROTHER SISTER trilogy--less impressed with AMERICAN TRADE, which he wrote for the Royal Shakespeare Company. CHOIR BOY is his best play so far. It is simpler and less self-consciously poetic or theatrical than his other works. It's a lovely play here given a superb production.