Choir Boy, the ebullient and endearing coming-of-age play by Tarell Alvin McCraney now bowing on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, begins with a voice emerging from darkness. It belongs to Pharus Jonathan Young, lead tenor at the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys, and it implores those listening to “trust and obey.” But as the spiritual he sings swells toward the firmament, another voice can be heard in the distance hissing invective at Pharus, calling him “everything but a child of God.” Within that duality, McCraney establishes the play’s central theme, which considers how tradition and expectation clash with identity and truth.
As embodied by the astonishing Jeremy Pope, Pharus is a study in those contradictions. He trusts in himself and obeys his conscience, even as it stands in seeming contrast with what he truly wants: to uphold the proud tradition of Drew men who preceded him. That legacy requires him to “tighten up” and tamp down his flamboyance, which catches the ire of stern but sympathetic Headmaster Morrow (an appropriately authoritative Chuck Cooper). The environment at Drew simultaneously allows him to thrive and demands he change himself to be fully accepted.
Through Pharus and his classmates, McCraney captures the swirling hormones and self-discovery that accompany adolescence. He also addresses how toxic masculinity seeps into a developing soul – a topic he considered, with a more serious touch, in his Academy Award–winning screenplay for the 2016 film Moonlight. Each of the boys inhabiting Drew’s hallowed halls – from chief tormentor Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson, who avoids malevolent stereotypes) to kindhearted, athletic A.J. (the excellent John Clay III) – is in the process of learning what it means to be a man. As it should, the play suggests the answer to that question is unique and individual.
The drama occasionally loses focus. A subplot involving a retired teacher who returns to teach a course in critical thinking feels shoehorned in from Goodbye Mr. Chips. Its messages – expand your horizons, open your heart, and challenge your preconceived notions of the world – can seem overly telegraphed, and Austin Pendleton’s broad performance as the teacher (awkwardly named Mr. Pendleton) occasionally grates.
But Mr. Pendleton’s class allows Pharus to posit a controversial theory that spirituals have been misunderstood throughout American history. Their value was not in the coded messages they supposedly held that allowed slaves to escape to freedom; instead, simply singing them offered a sui generis kind of freedom. The music itself unshackles the soul.
It’s impossible to ignore that sense of liberation when the choir – which also includes Nicholas L. Ashe, David Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, and Marcus Gladney – perform their songs of praise, stirringly arranged by Jason Michael Webb. They become the quintessence of Pharus’s philosophy. They reveal their true selves through music, communicating meaning and messages that transcend words.
Pharus himself proves the poignant example. In his daily interactions, he constructs a snarky, smiling mask to cope with the constant belittlement and pain that comes with being different. He can’t show weakness, lest he open himself up to vulnerability. But when he sings, he puts the full range of his emotions on display. The magnetic Pope excels in both modes – he unleashes cutting quips like artillery fire – but he’s absolutely shattering when the character is at his most unguarded.
Choir Boy premiered Off-Broadway five years ago, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s intimate black-box space at City Center. Director Trip Cullman has smoothly restaged his production to fit the larger Friedman, aided by David Zinn’s malleable set and Peter Kaczorowski’s subtle, evocative lighting design. Camille A. Brown’s lively choreography keeps scene changes fast and fluid across the involving, intermission-less two-hour running time. Many plays suffer when they transfer from a small house to a Broadway hall. But if anything, the expressive core of Choir Boy has only grown.