Tarell Alvin McCraney
Marin Theatre Company
Acclaimed playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney does not lightly skirt difficult contemporary issues in any play he writes, especially those confronting African American families and their young males. Yet he often comes at these problems through a lens avoided by most modern stages: Faith and its core role in forming and bonding Black communities. In Choir Boy, Mr. McCraney targets head on homophobia in the African American community, teenage bullying, and the pressure of strong group norms and codes on individual choices (not unlike the sacred codes seen in youth gangs but here as a school’s code of conduct). He does so surrounding us with the movingly beautiful voices of young men singing traditional spirituals and hymns in a cappella harmonies. The result is must-see regional premiere of his Choir Boy at Marin Theatre Company.
Set in the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys (where African American boys study and board somewhere in a southern U.S town), Choir Boy opens and closes on graduation, a day when the biggest honor goes to the next year’s leader of the school’s renowned choir to solo the institution’s sacred anthem, Trust and Obey. In the interim year of our play, the highly talented and quite effeminate Pharus Jonathan Young assumes the student head of the choir, a role to which he brings full flamboyance, inflated ego, and wit-filled intelligence. His nemesis, Bobby Marrow (also nephew of Headmaster Marrow), mocks and scorns each limp-wristed flair of Pharus, any suggestion at more contemporary sound for the musical ensemble, and all of Pharus’s attempts to make points with fellow students or the faculty. The tensions grow, sides develop, and inevitable eruptions occur. But at any given moment amidst all this teenage angst and fury, one voice in song soon joined by harmonious others magically leads to a few moments of truce and brotherhood. Through these sacred songs of another century’s slavery (often made more contemporary through the talents of Darius Smith as Music Director), the boys are able to express individual and collective frustrations, fears, hopes, and dreams. Figuratively and literally, the boys bare their souls and bodies to us as audience in uplifted, angelic voices as they relate the journeys each undergoes to face and come to grips with family, peer, and self-image issues and conflicts.
As Pharus, Jelani Alladin is masterful in the role he reprises from a recent Washington, D.C. (Studio Theatre) production. In voice, he soars into high octave realms with clear notes that hang in the air like melodic rainbows. As an actor, he spontaneously and naturally creates singular moments of ecstasy, agony, and every emotion in between that any young boy might feel who is full of faith, himself, and life’s every opportunity to shine as well as one plagued by peers’ smirks, a headmaster’s wariness of his leadership abilities, and his own desires of body that he dare not show to others. Also from the D.C. cast and equally stellar in his role is Jaysen Wright as Pharus’s jock-muscled, humble, and totally handsome roommate, Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James. Mr. Wright threads throughout the play a solid, steady portrayal of AJ’s quiet, respected leadership of his peers as well as steadfast, loyal friendship to the outcast Pharus, modeling in a powerful, moving way what it means to reject being a silent bystander and instead to take a bold step to help a friend in need. These two flawless performances are well-matched by three other actors who dig deep to express the anger of a now motherless boy who feels threatened by this sissified star Pharus (Dimitri Woods as Bobby), to play the bully’s reluctant lackey who really wants just to be a nice guy (Rotimi Agbabiaka as Junior), and to be the somewhat sanctimonious future preacher who has a torturing secret that takes a darkened shower to reveal (Forest Van Dyke as David Heard). Coupled with point-on acting for each is the ability to sound off in song to express deep-down doubts, desires, and dreams.
Equally strong are the two adults who have journeys of their own to traverse in the course of this one hundred minute story. As a Caucasian and former Drew teacher who is coaxed out of retirement to teach ‘creative thought’ to these restless teens, Charles Shaw Robinson as Mr. Pendleton is undaunted by initial, vocalized skepticism of his white presence. He proceeds to bring a light-hearted, joyful portrayal of a teacher who is determined both to challenge and to care about his students – that is until one of them uses the ‘n-word’ to another. As Headmaster Marrow, Ken Robinson stands tall, proud, and steady in his leading and mentoring these boys whether counseling Pharus on tempering his wrist movements and three-octave laughter or sternly dealing with his nephew’s stubborn and sullen dislike of Pharus (and seemingly also of him, his own uncle). Like every one in the play, Headmaster Marrow too has a crisis moment as he cries out in prayer for guidance in the evening’s most plaintive, heart-wrenching solo that is stunning in its emotional and tonal depths and heights.
Jason Sherwood’s wood-paneled, semi-circular set with five door openings clearly establishes that each of our boys enters Drew with a unique history, now facing the joys and challenges of being on his own in this sanctuary of a religious boarding school. Watched over by variously illuminated pictures of iconic African American men from Du Bois to Obama, these boys are free to pursue their education in ways many of their contemporaries in both urban and rural America are not. Here apart from gangs, under-funded schools, and the majority society watching their every move and threatening them at any moment on any street, these boys are still often hurting, scared, angry, and lonely. We see that just being a normal teenage boy is really tough. Boys here at Drew struggle with self-identity issues, a mother who seems not to care, a father who too quickly marries after a boy’s mother dies, boys who taunt and tease, competition for attention and leadership, issues of body image – issues that teenage boys everywhere face with varying degrees of success. Tarell Alvin McCraney seems to be pointing out an obvious conclusion about the plight of more typical African American teen boys: How close-to-impossible their journeys toward adulthood often must be when they have all these ‘normal’ boyhood hurdles to maneuver plus those added by a majority society that tends to shun and demonize them.
In Choir Boy, Mr. McCraney raises many questions with no easy answers, leaving us both uplifted by heavenly music and shouldered with earthly challenges of how to provide for every boy the needed sanctuary and space to struggle and survive. This is a play to be seen and heard, to be contemplated and discussed.
Rating: 5 E’s
Choir Boy has been extended at Marin Theatre through July 5, 2015.