By Patrick Hurley
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is on the cusp of greatness. A young, tremendously gifted wordsmith, McCraney’s work thus far is vibrant, funny, searing, and above all painfully human. And with only a few plays to his credits, it is exciting to imagine where this talented man is going to take us next. For now, we have Choir Boy, playing at the Geffen Playhouse.
And much like The Brothers Size which just finished its run at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, Choir Boy is a powerful, humanistic tale of self-discovery, love, and acceptance. His themes are large, but he matches them with intellect and a gentleness in his prose that at once raises and grounds these pieces. Something very few writers are so capable of.
The story of Choir Boy takes place at the Charles R. Drew prep school for boys, and centers around a young, gay, African-American student named Pharus (Jeremy Pope). Pharus is an openly gay student, who has just been named leader of the school choir. Tensions mount because of Pharus’s sexuality, and is the object of ridicule, bigotry, and hateful slurs on a regular basis. Most of this antagonizing comes from fellow chorister Bobby (Donovan Mitchell), who is easily brought to anger over Pharus’s mannerisms, and behavior. He sees homosexuality as a sign of weakness and he is quick to attack.
Pharus finds a friend and confidant in his roommate Anthony (Grantham Coleman), a young man who isn’t persuaded to fear, hate, or shun Pharus for something as silly as his sexuality. He simply accepts Pharus, and doesn’t understand why Pharus can’t.
Headmaster Marrow (Michael A. Shepperd) finds himself having to deal with a situation he never thought he’d have to deal with. It seems having a gay student wasn’t on his radar, and he’s unprepared. He brings in Mr. Pendleton (Leonard Kelly-Young) an older teacher, who comes out of retirement to serve as supervisor to the choir. Mr. P, as the students call him, soon recognizes the tensions between the students, particularly Pharus and Bobby, and has to get creative in his supervisory skills. The meetings with Mr. Pendleton evolve into debates about gospel music, which become debates about spirituals, which become debates about slavery, which become debates about identity. Which culminates in a series of revelations that are at once surprising and perhaps inevitable.
The theme of identity is a striking one in this play. And through the eyes of Pharus we see a world where trying to come to terms with one’s own identity can mean hostility, hatred, and even violence. Borrowing thematic, and musical elements from biblical sources, though not with religious intent, this play pits a man against the world, and paves his road to salvation with many obstacles. It is a proverbial mountaintop that Pharus must reach, and in doing so he must suffer, for that is the biblical way.
Director Trip Cullman does a magnificent job staging this piece. McCraney’s plays are so inherently theatrical, and Mr. Cullman makes the most of it. The scene transitions are so briskly paced as to appear almost instantaneous, and the musical moments are highly effective. The singing, all done without music, serves as a brilliant means of expression for these characters, and Mr. Cullman knows how to make the most out of each and every one of these powerful moments. Musical director and vocal arranger Jason Michael Webb works magic with these actors, and allows for exhilarating and poignant singing to be easily incorporated into this story.
Scenic designer, David Zinn, also must be praised for his clever sets. Walls that raise to reveal other sets, and simple props that move to change one room to another, made the rapid flow from scene to scene feel almost seamless.
The cast is first-rate. As Headmaster Marrow, Michael A. Shepperd is a commanding presence. He has complete control over nothing, and it shows in his outbursts of anger, which are more comical than threatening. It’s a nicely nuanced performance that provides much of the comic relief. And when he sings near the end of the play, you will take notice.
As Bobby, Donovan Mitchell is an easy to dislike antagonist. His words are vile, and his attitude disagreeable. He is a bit of an American stereotype, the hotheaded alpha-male, which is ironic seeing as how he is constantly ridiculing Pharus for being a stereotype. Mr. Mitchell imbues all of Bobby’s anger, and self-righteousness with complete conviction, and his words and actions sting all the more because of it.
As Mr. Pendleton, Leonard Kelly-Young is quite effective. His kindness and understanding seem to be masking a pain, a greater understanding of struggle than these students can comprehend, and it is this underlying knowledge that makes Mr. P interesting, and Mr. Kelly-Young intriguing to watch.
As Anthony, Grantham Coleman turns in a quietly beautiful performance. Anthony is not just a tolerant young man, he is an accepting one. He looks at Pharus for who he is, and Mr. Coleman allows for the emotional world of his character to be seen through his looks. Every incident that occurs, you can see his response, even if he doesn’t voice it, it’s there. His final monologue about Pharus’s self-hate, is the most powerful dialogue of the evening, not just because of the writing, but because the actor was emerged in a character who believes what he’s saying. This is yet another mark of playwright McCraney’s genius. He is taking a step beyond the post-modern world. He is presenting a character not all that seen in American literature, and creating perhaps a new archetype, or at the very least a deeper understanding of human nature. One that doesn’t conform, but rather defines.
Finally, as Pharus, Jeremy Pope is extraordinary. He is Pharus. He wholly, whole-heartedly, and vividly displays his struggles, triumphs, and disappointments. His commitment to Pharus, to the honesty of his portrayal is a thing of beauty, and one that will be remembered long after the house lights have come up and the audience has gone home.
This play will linger. It’s a piece with something to say, something that everyone can relate to, and Mr. McCraney is a playwright (one to take serious note of) that understands his medium, understands the theatricality of song, of movement, of language. And all of these elements are brought together by a deft writer, cultivated by a skilled director, and executed by a stellar cast. Don’t miss this one.
** Photos by Michael Lamont.
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Trip Cullman
The Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA. 90024
September 26-October 26
Saturday 3PM & 7PM
Sunday 2PM & 7PM
Tickets: In-person at box office