"Lord, is my wrist wrecking my world!" exclaims Pharus Jonathan Young after being scolded by his headmaster about his limp wrist for the thousandth time. Effeminate, clever, and occasionally cruel, Pharus is the main character in Tarell Alvin McCraney's new play, Choir Boy, now making its American premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club. Off-Broadway first-timer Jeremy Pope plays Pharus.
Set at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, an all-male, all-black boarding school in the Deep South, Choir Boy tells the story of five young men as they struggle to forge identities and carve out respect in their senior year. Pharus leads the choir and yearns for the glory of being the only boy in the school's history to sing a solo at two consecutive graduations. His nemesis, Bobby (Wallace Smith), who also happens to be the headmaster's nephew, stands in his way. Meanwhile, a wise, older teacher with a long history in the civil rights movement, Mr. Pendleton (appropriately played by Austin Pendleton) has come out of retirement to offer the students a few lessons about thinking critically.
TheaterMania spoke with Pope about his Off-Broadway debut and how he got there.
How did you get involved in Choir Boy?
They did a production in London last September. I had just graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). The London production was one of my first auditions after graduating. I went to MTC to do casting and callbacks. They said, ‘We really like you, but we're not looking to bring someone over to London.' I thought it was their way of saying no. I didn't go to London. I kept working. I did a Theatreworks tour. I got my Equity card. Right when that finished, they held auditions again for Choir Boy. After several callbacks, the next thing I knew they were asking me to play the role.
Were you familiar with Tarell Alvin McCraney and his work before that?
I wasn't. I had read Wig Out! in school, but I didn't know much about him until last summer when I auditioned for Choir Boy and I read about him. He had so many projects going on. I was a little intimidated when he was in the room at first, but now we're good friends. He's one of the nicest people I know, very hard-working. I admire him so much.
His writing is so specific, to the point of giving particular pronunciations. At one point your character says "rheum," meaning "room." Do you find that helpful as an actor?
This process has been amazing. It's such a collaborative process. We were able to come into the rehearsal space and look at the language and find what story we're telling. The language is really specific, and I would constantly ask him what certain things meant. Sometimes he would ask me back, ‘What do you want to say?' Sometimes in rehearsal, instead of saying the line, we would just say whatever came to our heads. And sometimes that would work better and we'd keep that. He is very free about that. It made this such a good working experience.
How do you approach a character like Pharus?
It was a little tricky. I knew that, in a way, if I didn't play him the right way, the audience could really hate him. They could want him to fail. Ultimately, he's a young boy who is trying to figure out his way in the senior year of school.
While he is the subject of bullying in the show, he's not a victim at all. In fact, he's really mean at times. How do you play that balance?
Yeah, that's the thing! I didn't want to play this total b*tch. He's constantly testing the borders, though, with his classmates, with the headmaster, with everyone. He sees how far he can go. He talks too much and that gets him into a lot of trouble. Being an only child, I could easily relate to that. One of the biggest things that got me in trouble in school was talking too much. I would get offended if a teacher said I was doing something wrong, because I was always right. That was me in high school, which wasn't so long ago for me.
What kind of school did you go to?
It was a very diverse school. It wasn't all African American like Drew. It was a big school. I'm from Orlando, Florida. I was in the theater there. Once people heard I could sing, they put me on this pedestal. I sang the national anthem at sporting events. It gave me an ego, kind of like Pharus. It did get me in a lot of trouble. While some teachers would let things slide for my talent, some didn't care.
Austin Pendleton plays one of your teachers in the play. What was it like working with him?
Austin is the man. He is a superhero. It's so hard to keep a straight face working with Austin. He seems so fragile, just looking at him, but I will never forget the first rehearsal. I was reading this scene to him and he was just listening. I guess I said something wrong and he just looked at me and said, ‘Shut the f**k up.' What?! I didn't know him, but it was the funniest thing ever. Austin and I are backstage and we just cut up. I learn so much from this man. I really wish I could be in his head, just to see what goes on.
You come from a recording background. How did you end up in the theater?
When I was younger I wanted to be a pop singer and recording artist. I bought all the software and I had a studio in my house. That was my outlet when there wasn't a play. I did my homework and then I made music. I did that for the longest time, but something about the theater really sparked my interest. A lot of people said, ‘Stay home. Don't go to New York. There's Disney here!' I wanted more for myself though. I had to keep moving. I wanted to move to New York to go to theater school.
And was that a good decision?
To be honest, it was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make. My parents weren't supportive in the beginning. There was a lot of fear. It's so expensive to live here. My first offer out of school was a Royal Caribbean contract. So I thought I was going on a cruise. My parents were excited about that and the prospect of making money. Then I got an agent who told me it wasn't enough. So I turned it down. And then my parents were unhappy again. ‘What, you're turning down something for nothing?!?!' I tried to explain, but they didn't get it. That's when Choir Boy came.
What's been your biggest lesson working on Choir Boy?
As a recording artist, it's so much about being showy and performing tricks. As an actor, one thing I've tried to work on is just staying grounded and staying truthful. I need to tell myself, ‘You have nothing to prove.' When you're always trying to be the best and show off, you really lose the art. My job is to tell an amazing story that Tarell has given me the opportunity to work on.
What would you like to work on next?
One of my dream roles is to play Benny in In the Heights. I don't think I'm old enough yet. Kyle Beltran [who plays David in Choir Boy] was in In the Heights on Broadway. When I was in AMDA, I second-acted that show, because I couldn't afford to buy a ticket. I snuck in and he was playing Usnavi. I asked him to sign my Playbill. To be working with him now makes this all so real. I never thought last year when I was about to ship off on a cruise that I would be in New York making my debut at MTC. I never would have guessed. So I'm open for anything. I'm ready to work.