Tarell Alvin McCraney finds fascinating ways to breathe life into a frequently-written-about subject.
The students at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys live by one edict: Don't snitch. It's this trait that makes things difficult for Headmaster Marrow, who, at the start of Tarell Alvin McCraney's exceptionally entertaining and profound new play, Choir Boy, demands to know what caused the head of the choir, Pharus Jonathan Young, to stop singing the school song during commencement.
Pharus is different than the other boys at Drew, a religious boarding school for young black men. An effeminate, unapologetic drama queen, he was being taunted with anti-gay epithets by a fellow student. Still, Pharus believes in the law of the land. Embarrassed as Pharus is, he refuses to give up his classmate's name. It's this loyalty, to his school and to himself, that defines him. But Pharus is not entirely a victim.
What makes Choir Boy — directed by Trip Cullman for Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II — so different from other plays with a similar subject (namely The Old Boy by A.R. Gurney, Alan Bennett's The History Boys, and the musical Bare) is McCraney's treatment of his central character. Pharus, captivatingly portrayed by newcomer Jeremy Pope, is both a victim and a bully, unafraid to use his preternatural intelligence in ways that can really piss people off.
Rather than give up the name of his offending classmate Bobby Marrow, Pharus merely throws the homophobic lad (Wallace Smith) out of the choir. In and out of class, Pharus finds further ways to taunt Bobby, who happens to be the headmaster's nephew. And when the headmaster himself (Chuck Cooper) tells Pharus he can no longer lead the singing group (because he's just not a good leader), Pharus responds by floating the idea of blackmail.
Pope, a recent graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, very capably handles the many facets of Pharus' personality, from the bravado-filled dandy to the shy young man inside who just wants to be accepted. He is matched in intensity by Smith as Bobby, his main adversary, and the remaining group of boys: Grantham Coleman as his kind and understanding roommate, Kyle Beltran as a seemingly upstanding student destined for the ministry, and Nicholas L. Ashe as one of Bobby's cronies. Cooper brings his usual stately air and gravitas to the role of Headmaster Marrow, and Austin Pendleton is remarkably moving as the older white teacher Mr. Pendleton, a former civil rights advocate whose response to watching the boys act out is jaw-dropping.
Just as jaw-dropping are the gospel and spiritual numbers spread throughout, performed a cappella by the choir boys under Jason Michael Webb's musical direction. Punctuating each scene, and blowing the figurative roof off David Zinn's versatile set, these choral numbers also help differentiate the play from so many others with a similar theme. Serving as both commentary on the action and factoring into the plot as it pertains to the struggles of identity, these musical interludes induce goose bumps when heard in-person and when you start to consider their meaning long after the play has ended.