Sunday, 29 October 2017

CHOIR BOY by Tarrell Alvin McCraney at the Raven Theatre

     How does one react to being the brightest kid in the room and the most talented but also the most hated? How does one deal with the hate of others and the hate of oneself? That's the dilemma facing Pharus (Christopher W. Jones), a student at a Southern prep school for African-American boys. Pharus's way is to want to lead the most important arts institution at the school, the choir that sings at all the major school functions. Like many gay men of an earlier time, Pharus turns to the arts for self-expression and refuge. In the first scene of CHOIR BOY, Pharus, now a junior, sings the school song at the graduation ceremonies. He stops and turns around when his nemesis, Bobby (Patrick Agada), audibly whispers "faggot" and Bobby's friend Junior (Julian Terrell Otis), laughs. The rest of the ninety minute play gives us key moments of the year between graduations. Pharus' way of handling the homophobic sneers is to play the bitchy queen, returning nastiness for nastiness. Pharus keeps asking, "Which is better, to be feared or to be respected?" He wants the latter but feels that he has to settle for the former. He can be as cruel and insensitive as his enemies. Bobby and Junior represent the general attitude of the school toward "sissy" Pharus whose effeminacy is even a problem for his mother. He has some comfort from his kind roommate A.J. (Tamarus Harvell), and sex from an unlikely partner. There's a strict headmaster and an elderly white teacher who can't help spouting what we nowadays call microaggressions but who does have the boys' best interests at heart. There's another gay boy who can't deal with his gayness.
     CHOIR BOY is a beautifully written play that economically but richly offers us vivid pictures of its characters, particularly prickly Pharis, who reflexively employs the responses of embattled gay men, particularly effeminate ones -- lacerating wit and lots of irony. It's a fine play in its own right and also the best gay play of this century. Richness is added by the great a cappella numbers that separate scenes.
     The Raven Theatre's production, directed by Michael Menendian, was a good representation of the play with one crucial flaw. It was a mistake to dial back Pharis's effeminacy and prickliness. In many ways, Pharis is an old style queen. This makes him problematic for straight and gay audiences but I think the playwright wants us to confront our feelings about effeminacy and the performative responses to homophobia that gay men who can't look or act straight employ. In this production, Pharis is played as a nice guy who happens to be gay. Because of this, his character loses its arc from hostility to sensitivity in the penultimate scene with his loyal roommate. This is a major reservation but my only reservation about a fine performance from all the actors who also sing beautifully.
     An admirable performance of an excellent play.

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