Raven Theatre stages the Chicago premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2013 play about a young gay man looking for his place in an all-black prep school.
This adolescent tale of a gay boy asserting his place at an all-black prep school has the earnest, dated feel of a very special episode of some early-’90s TV show. That it’s instead a 2013 work by the gifted Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight, The Brother/Sister Plays) makes it all the more puzzling. Pharus (Christopher W. Jones) has been given the prestigious role of leading the Charles R. Drew Prep School’s a capella choir for his senior year. Pharus is also (pretty) openly gay—a fact that the school’s headmaster (Robert D. Hardaway) is unprepared to deal with, and that makes Pharus a target of homophobic bile from another choir member (Patrick Agada) who happens to be the headmaster’s nephew. But while Pharus exhorts his singers to “try to blend,” he refuses to blend in himself.
That’s about the extent of the conflict for the first hour of the play’s 90 minutes, though McCraney packs the plot with contrived subthreads that go nowhere much, including introducing an elderly white instructor (Don Tieri) who comes out of retirement to teach the choir a suspiciously unstructured class in “creative thinking.” When a real point of contention is finally introduced late in the play, it feels both unearned and telegraphed. Michael Menendian’s stiff production doesn’t do the script many favors—Jones’s Pharus is stuck in a single mode of abrasive superiority for far too long, and many of his castmates seem to be operating independently of one another rather than listening and reacting. The show’s bright spots are the musical interludes, in which the choir boys put stirring spins on spirituals (the music direction is by Frederick Harris). If only Choir Boy’s other elements could achieve such harmony.
Raven Theatre. By Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Michael Menendian. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.