Theater review by Adam Feldman
The idea of choir boys as paragons of churchly virtue has often been predicated on silence around an open secret: that many of the young men drawn to the ecstasies of religious music are queer. Boys who might elsewhere be shunned can be, in this context, celebrated and rewarded for the same qualities (emotionality, musicality, sentimentality) that would otherwise mark them as other. But what happens when this process, a sublimation into the sublime, becomes visible?
In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s absorbing drama Choir Boy, the superb Jeremy Pope plays Pharus, whose beautiful tenor has helped earn him a scholarship to the high-toned Charles R Drew Prep School for Boys. He can’t hide his buoyant effeminacy (he knows he is thought of as “the lil Sweet Boy they been trying to straighten out for years”), which leads to friction with some of his peers at the all-black academy. But the choir gives him space not just to be himself but also to lead others. Within his sphere of swish-fulfillment power, he is ambitious and assertive—to the annoyance of boys like the homophobic Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson).
For Pharus, music is both an escape route and a destination unto itself, and Choir Boy is suffused with it. At regular intervals, the choir—which includes the nervous David (Caleb Eberhardt), the immature Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe) and Pharus’s kindhearted jock roommate, Anthony (John Clay III)—performs gorgeous musical numbers, arranged by Jason Michael Webb and choreographed by Camille A. Brown. Most are traditional Negro spirituals (though one lovestruck student sings a Patti LaBelle ballad), and they feel transcendent.
The rest of Choir Boy is not always up to their level. The ending has been revised since Manhattan Theatre Club first presented it Off Broadway in 2013 with much of the same cast—Pope, Ashe, and the excellent Chuck Cooper and Austin Pendleton as adults at the school—but many of the changes are not improvements; the denouement is somehow more explanatory yet less clear. (A pivotal scene of violence is a misstep in Trip Cullman’s mostly sure-footed staging.) At its best, though, the play is specific, lyrical and touching: McCraney brings a ringing, unapologetic queer black voice to Broadway, and offers valuable perspective on struggles that have too long been unsung.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Trip Cullman. With Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper, Austin Pendleton. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.