Choir Boy Marks a Thrilling Broadway Debut for Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney
Manhattan Theatre Club transfers its production to the Samuel J. Friedman five years after its off-Broadway premiere.
"Would you rather be feared or respected?"
That loaded question is at the heart of Choir Boy, Tarell Alvin McCraney's ferociously entertaining 2013 drama now making its (and the playwright's) Broadway debut at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. "If you're respected," protagonist Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope) says early on, "people give you space. But if they fear you, they jumpin' back off of curbs."
Pharus is different from his classmates at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a Catholic academy for young men of color. In a sea of bourgeoning machismo, Pharus is an effeminate drama queen. His chosen method of transportation is a sashay that would make RuPaul proud. Bubbling with preternatural intelligence, self-confidence, and a fierce loyalty to both himself and the school's unwritten honor code, Pharus's unapologetic trueness to himself makes him an open target, especially as he assumes the position of choir leader.
When we first meet Pharus, fellow student Bobby Morrow (the bratty J. Quinton Johnson) is taunting him with antigay epithets while they perform the school song at graduation. When confronted about his tentative performance by Headmaster Morrow (the everlastingly august Chuck Cooper), who happens to be Bobby's uncle, Pharus refuses to give Bobby up. Instead, Pharus's first order of business is to throw Bobby out of his choir. This sets off a chain reaction that leads Pharus to an important realization: Swagger and self-possession can get you far – they can even strike terror into people's hearts. But they're no replacement for dignity.
Choir Boy was Pope's first professional production after college, and it marks his Broadway debut, as well (he'll also be seen as one of the Temptations this spring in Ain't Too Proud). McCraney has provided him with a deep, multifaceted role — Pharus is a very different kid when he's talking to his roommate, AJ (John Clay III as the BFF anyone would want), than when he's in a "critical thinking" class taught by the dotty white professor Mr. Pendleton (played to perfection by the character's potential namesake, Austin Pendleton) — and Pope's work here is monumental. Running the gamut of emotions and managing to infuse each with honesty, dignity, and sass, Pope is more than just funny and magnetic and impassioned; he's brave. It's a thrilling performance to witness.
In the half-decade since Manhattan Theatre Club premiered Choir Boy at its black box at New York City Center, McCraney, who won a 2016 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Moonlight, has continued to finesse the already smart and satisfying piece. Working with director Trip Cullman, who staged the original production and repeats his work here, McCraney has made some exceptional revisions. Like the work of scenic and costume designer David Zinn, whose creations are punctuated with detail you can and cannot see, McCraney's rewrites permit the subtext to speak louder than the words, which allows the piece to breathe a little better. He clarifies key moments leading up to the shattering climax and fleshes out certain characters (actor Caleb Eberhardt in particular is a beneficiary of the rewrites, and he turns in an aching performance as David Heard, a divinity student with a secret that threatens to upend his life.)
Over all, Choir Boy feels less rushed, now, especially when it comes to the breathtaking gospel numbers that punctuate several scenes. Arranged by Jason Michael Webb, choreographed with exacting energy by Camille A. Brown, and sung by the young stars as though they're channeling a higher power, these few songs provide Brechtian-style commentary while giving voice to the inner-most souls of each character. If Choir Boy were that alone, it would be enough, but this great play, like its main character, contains multitudes.