Once again I made the trip downtown in Washington to see a show at the Studio Theatre here. This was the matinee performance of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy on Sunday, 11 January 2015, presented in the Studio’s 225-seat Metheny Theatre at the company’s Northwest 14th Street home in the Logan Circle neighborhood.
Directed at Studio by Kent Gash, the founding director of the New Studio on Broadway of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, the 100-minute Choir Boy was commissioned by New York City’s Manhattan Theatre Club. It premièred at London’s Royal Court Theatre in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in September 2012 and then had its U.S. début at MTC in July 2013. McCraney’s play went on to performances at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta (September-October 2013), the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. (September-October 2014), and GableStage in Coral Gables, Florida, in January 2015; Choir Boy will be presented at Mill Valley, California’s Marin Theatre Company in June and the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis in June and July. The intermissionless one-act opened at Studio on 7 January and is scheduled to close on 22 February.
McCraney was born in 1980 in Miami, where he attended the New World School of the Arts High School. He went on to the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago where he got a BFA in acting. He graduated from the Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program in 2007 with the Cole Porter Playwriting Award. He acted with the Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble in Chicago and the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois. McCraney’s also worked with Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Etienne of the Bouffes du Nord in Paris. For his writing, the 34-year-old artist has received the first Paula Vogel Playwriting Award (2007), London’s Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright (2008), the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award for The Brothers Size (2009), the Steinberg Playwright Award (2009), the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (2013), and the MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius” grant; 2013), among other honors. From 2009 to 2011, McCraney was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s International Playwright in Residence; he was the Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University in 2009 and currently holds a seven-year residency at the New Dramatist Center in New York.
Among McCraney’s other plays are The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy: The Brothers Size (Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, New York, 2006), In The Red and Brown Water (Young Vic Theatre, London, 2008), Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet (Public Theater, 2009); The Breach (Southern Rep Theatre, New Orleans, 2007); Wig Out! (Vineyard Theater, New York, 2008); American Trade (Hampstead Theatre, London, 2011); Head of Passes (Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago, 2013). Studio artistic director David Muse characterizes the “beating heart of” McCraney’s work as “language,” asserting of the playwright’s prose, “On the page, it looks like verse. To the ear, it sounds like music,” and Lauren Halvorsen, Studio’s dramaturg, writes, “His work is characterized by rich emotional landscapes and lyrical, character-driven language.” According to Muse, McCraney’s plays focus on “the recurring theme of fitting in. Of brotherhood and its challenges,” and Halvorsen observes that Choir Boy explores the “friction between upholding tradition and speaking your truth.”
A coming-of-age story about responding to human differences and to bullying by multidimensional characters who’re bonded by the Gospel music they sing together and the common humanity we all share, Choir Boy, set in the present, depicts a year in the lives of a group of African-American students at the fictional Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys, a historically black boarding school somewhere in the South, as they struggle with questions of identity and sexuality. Pharus Jonathan Young is a bright, devoted, and enthusiastic Drew student. At the end of his junior year, his pride in singing the school anthem at the graduation ceremony on the eve of the school’s 50th anniversary is marred by the anti-gay slurs hissed at him from the auditorium by one of his schoolmates, causing the young student-singer to stop in mid-performance.
Pharus doesn’t speak of his sexuality—the school is essentially in denial that homosexuality might actually exist at Drew—but as the character’s portrayed somewhat effeminately, he’s not really hiding it, either. (Concerned about the image set by the school’s choir “lead,” Headmaster Marrow warns Pharus about “your wrist.” The student responds disingenuously that it’s just a wrist, “a joint on my arm!”) The action begins when he refuses to divulge the name of the boy who taunted him, insisting on behaving “as a Drew man should.” Even under threat of expulsion, Pharus maintains that this would be a breach of the student’s honor code.
But Pharus also knows that he can exact his own private revenge. Gospel music at Drew is a tradition nearly as old as the school itself—the play, as its title intimates, is larded with gospel singing—and that tradition is embodied in its choir, where Pharus, as Drew’s best singer, can stand out and be different without fear. And as lead of the choir his senior year, he has the authority to decide who can and cannot sing. At the choir’s first meeting of the new school year, after a few pointed comments from the boy he believes humiliated him, Robert “Bobby” Marrow III, nephew of the headmaster, Pharus flares into righteous mode and kicks Bobby out of the gospel group. “Choir Boy isn’t autobiographical,” David Muse observes, “but coming from an exceptionally talented gay writer who grew up in the South, it is clearly a deeply personal work.”
I haven’t really sorted Choir Boy out yet—maybe by the end of this report I’ll have some kind of handle on it—but my initial reaction left me unimpressed. Studio has presented three other of McCraney’s plays, The Brother/Sister Plays in 2008, 2010, and 2011, and the dramatist has a slew of awards and prizes, but I’m underwhelmed by the dramaturgy I saw here, so I’m either missing something (always a possibility) or he’s not as good as his rep.
Choir Boy’s set in the present, but contends with what I’d say is a retro issue, by now even in the black community: a gay student among the elite. (My companions thought the play might have been set in an earlier decade to account for this attitude; the program doesn’t state the setting.) Furthermore, I found the whole thing contrived, set up, and artificial, including, in a rare instance for Studio, the performances. There are two adults in the cast, and they’re damn near caricatures; the headmaster is almost a cartoon and I’m not sure if he’s written as one or if Marty Austin Lamar played him that way (under Kent Gash’s guidance, of course). McCraney says of Choir Boy, “The play itself is asking us to see that all of these young men are complex, are full human beings, are, as a donor said the other night, ‘as complex as the 13.8 billion years of stardust that make us up.’” His point, he explains, is that “the moment we look at any individual human as just simple plain what we think or have been told they are, we then stop allowing their humanity” and then Gash echoes this declaration: “There’s a line in the play: ‘We are fearfully and marvelously made.’ Well, that’s true. And we are many things. And the play is demanding that we reckon with that, and acknowledge it and embrace it.” The problem I had, though, is that I didn’t actually see that on the stage.
I also had the feeling that, first, McCraney’d written the play around the idea of using gospel music as a motif—there’s considerable singing, which doesn’t seem to have much to do with the plot or the themes—so that the music came first and the drama came second, and, further, that Gash had assembled the cast on the basis of their singing voices over their acting abilities—singers who could act, not actors who could sing.
Now, I should confess that I’m not a fan of gospel music. I can appreciate the vocal harmonies, but the songs themselves don’t move me. One reason may be, of course, that they’re Christian religious songs, so I just don’t connect with them. As little as I feel the music contributes to the drama, there’s a lot of it in Choir Boy, so I was at a distinct disadvantage from the get-go. I’ll have to work out what any of this—the music in the play and my response or lack of response to it—means in terms of my assessment. Again, maybe that’ll develop as I write.
The Studio’s production of Choir Boy is staged in what for all intents and purposes is an amphitheater, giving it the kind of atmosphere of an operating theater or an old-time lecture hall. Jason Sherwood’s set is composed of a circular floor of multi-hued parquet, half-encircled by a dark-paneled wall with five open doorframes. (In a couple of scenes, the doorways serve as shower stalls, with working spray heads in what one of my grad school teachers would call “Gee-Whizz Realism.”) Above the doorways is a row of picture frames, but the images in them shift as the scenes change from one school space to another, and some of the wall décor changes as well. (The pictures in the frames help establish the time as the present: I’m pretty sure, my questionable eyesight notwithstanding, that in several scenes Barak Obama is depicted. Another set of photos seems to be a display of civil rights heroes, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy.) Otherwise, the only scenery that’s shifted are set pieces rolled or carried on by the actors—the beds of Pharus and his roommate’s dorm room, the benches of the choir’s practice room; many of the scenes have no other scenery than the constructed unit, as on an Elizabethan stage. All in all, it was a perfectly serviceable set which evoked a general sense of a traditional prep school trying to hark back to the Eatons and Harrows of legend (and I went to one of those kinds of schools in this country, too) while allowing the spectators enough leeway to add our own details and specifics to make McCraney and Gash’s Drew Prep an “Everyschool” (well, okay—an “Every Prep School”). Of course, when the boys get to singing, the little circular stage works excellently as a performance space, even if the scene is supposed to be a rehearsal or a class. (The boys also sing in the showers at one point, putting them each in an alcove up stage, arrayed in a semi-circle like a peculiar kind of choral group.)
Dawn Chiang’s lighting and Kathleen Geldard’s costumes both add to the atmosphere of a tradition-bound institution. The play’s dress requirements are, needless to say, restricted by the Drew uniform, a blue blazer (the group’s star ball-player wears a Drew letter jacket), chinos, white dress shirt, and orange-and-gold striped tie. The boys’ shoes and hairdos are the only individualized aspects of their appearances, while the adults might as well be wearing uniforms, too, since they both had on suits—Headmaster Marrow’s was a three-piece, of course. Like their behavior, individuality and non-conformity in dress is not encouraged among the boys at Drew—though Pharus is the only student whose shoes aren’t black. He alone wears tan bucks—not showy, but they do stand out. (Bobby wears black running shoes with blue soles—his self-assertion, I suppose.)
I still don’t know if the complaints I have with the production style are the fault of McCraney’s script or Gash’s direction, but I’ve already said I found Studio’s Choir Boy contrived and artificial. The formality of the setting may also have encouraged the kind of brittle, almost presentational performance style the cast employed, and since I don’t know either McCraney’s other plays or the previous productions of Choir Boy, I don’t really know if that’s common to the writer’s work or this play, or if it’s a construct of this director and this cast. Lamar’s headmaster was so bombastic and officious that I hardly believed he was a real person. He over-enunciated his words as if the vocabulary was all new to him, a man out of his rhetorical depth even though he’d been in his post for at least three years. Marrow’s described in the Studio casting notice as “Shrewd operator when it comes to school politics. Man with heart who leads with tough love,” but that’s not the figure I saw Lamar project.
The other grown-up is Mr. Pendleton, a former history master at Drew who comes out of retirement to teach a special course and oversee the choir. Pendleton, played by Alan Wade, is white and 60 or 70 years old, but he’s supposed to be a fervent teacher with a surprising passion about the ’60s civil rights movement (he marched with King, Marrow tells the boys) which leads to one shining moment of genuine anger when the boys start tossing the label “Nigger” at one another. But Wade’s portrayal (and/or McCraney’s writing) makes him a doddering, slightly addled old white man among the young African Americans, trying too hard and failing. What passes for wisdom and a Socratic attempt to encourage critical, out-of-the-box thinking only sounds like pedagogical pap. I don’t know Wade’s work (or Lamar’s, either), so I don’t know if this is his usual kind of performance, or if he’s been miscast or misdirected, but if not for that single stand-out moment, I’d have said the character was meant to be a bad comic stereotype.
McCraney was successful, at least, in differentiating the five young students, and the actors did carve out distinct characters for them. What I can’t say, though, is that the boys were unique or exceptional figures, more than the students in any prep school drama on screen or stage. The fact that they’re all gospel singers comes off more as an artificial distinction, like the writers and artists at the school in the movie Words and Pictures (about which I wrote on ROT on 25 July and 16 September 2014), though in that case the writing and drawing were central to the plot. The singing in Choir Boy seems like an add-on—and a justification for the play’s title. Given that the students were written with so little beyond stock character traits, the actors weren’t especially motivated to rise above clichéd performances. Even Pharus’s supposed intelligence comes off in Jelani Alladin’s portrayal as adolescent pedantry rather than real smarts. He’s no Holden Caulfield and the other students—Eric Lockley’s Junior Davis (the naïve sidekick), Jaysen Wright’s Anthony Justin “AJ” James (the open-hearted jock), Keith Antone’s Robert “Bobby” Marrow III (the angry and privileged—and homophobic—alpha male), and Jonathan Burke’s David Heard (the sensitive would-be pastor—and closeted homosexual)—fare no better. They don’t give dishonest performances by any means, but they never rise above the expected and stereotypical. Even the big “surprise” at the end isn’t such a surprise—one of my companions said afterwards that she saw it coming early on in the play. If they weren’t black and gospel singers, they could be the kids in Dead Poets Society or Tea and Sympathy (how’s that for a retro reference!), and the performances don’t rise above the familiar roles McCraney seems to have written.
The a cappella singing is superb—which is why I feel the actors were cast for their singing talent over their acting talent—even if I never saw the thematic or dramatic purpose in the gospel music. That shower scene, which Chiang’s lighting makes looks like it’s set in a chapel, is technically marvelous: a lot of people sing in the shower, but these guys do it in five-part harmony! (The song is “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and the musical direction for Choir Boy is by Darius Smith.) But what’s its point? If gospel music is supposed to have been a thematic underpinning to whatever McCraney wants to say with Choir Boy, it didn’t communicate to me. Granted, I’m ignorant about this musical tradition, but if the lyrics are supposed to enhance the play’s ideas and points, I didn’t hear it. There’s a whole scene devoted to a discussion of the Negro spiritual which told me a few factoids of which I wasn’t aware, but it’s part of what I described above as Pharus’s pedantry; it didn’t reveal anything about the boys, the school, or the issues with which they’re dealing. The cast—even Headmaster Marrow takes a turn vocalizing—executed the gospel singing well, but it never elucidated the stuff of the play for me.
I may be a minority of one in my opinion about Choir Boy. In the Washington Post, for instance, Celia Wren declares that “‘Choir Boy’ sings a stirring tune” with gospel songs that “open further windows onto the tangled sweep of American history and civics.” She calls the Studio production “sturdy and often powerful” that “deals with themes of major social import.” “Gash and his team have given the work a handsome realization,” asserts Wren. “From start to finish, this play will have you anticipating what’s next while wondering, ‘Who’s the b[a]d guy?’” asserts Washington Informer’s D. Kevin McNeir. “If one exists at all.”
“[T]he real power of” Choir Boy, writes Doug Rule in MetroWeekly, “is in McCraney’s subtle, graceful and evocative style of storytelling” for which Gash “has corralled a strong group of young singing actors.” Thus the play reveals “a few tear-inducing moments” as well as “plenty of gentle laughs, through clever wordplay and a few choice cultural critiques.” “Choir Boy looks like a big hit, and it deserves to be,” declares Washington City Paper’s Chris Klimek. In Washington Life Magazine, Chuck Conconi reports, “Kent Gash’s smooth and understated direction allows the intensity and poignancy of McCraney’s complex script” that demonstrates “the pessimistic truth that . . . tradition can uplift, but it can also constrain.”
On MD Theatre Guide, Tina Ghandchilar recommends, “If you’re in the mood to see a play filled with some hearty gospel soulful a cappella music, Choir Boy is the show to see.” “Director Kent Gash builds a fascinating world dense with thorny intersections of race, class, and sexuality that are sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortable,” writes Michael Poandl of DCMetroTheaterArts, staging a play that’s “about forgiveness, and to this end there are moments that are extremely moving.” The DCMTA reviewer found the Studio production “a thought-provoking, entertaining, and cathartic experience.” On DC Theatre Scene, Jennifer Clements insists that “if you see one show at Studio Theatre in 2015, let it be Choir Boy.” Having been less than satisfied by McCraney’s earlier offerings at Studio, Clements, the most enthusiastic reviewer among the local web writers, pronounces that “this powerhouse of a show is the type of journey that reverberates long after you leave the theatre,” describing the play as “nothing short of kaleidoscopic” and “a reminder of the intrinsic potency of theatre.” She declares in the end, “It parts our lips into smiles, it shatters our hearts to dust, and begs us to look more closely at our fellow man. This daring play should be required theatregoing for anyone who believes in the transformative power of the stage.”
In the New York-based cyber press, Jennifer Perry of Broadway World finds that “a strong ensemble cast brings [Choir Boy] to life . . . in an excellent way,” writing that “McCraney's powerful, plot-driven play is engaging to say the least.” Perry characterizes McCraney’s dialogue as “like poetry ‘with a purpose,’” emphasizing that the playwright’s use of language “sets the play apart from other popular offerings that deal with similar subject matter,” though she complains that “Choir Boy treads . . . into after-school special, predictable territory.” Of the acting, the BWW reviewer says that the cast “uses McCraney’s powerful language to establish an emotional arch worthy of attention no matter whether one identifies with the characters’ plights or not.” On Talkin’ Broadway, Susan Berlin calls McCraney’s play with music “riveting,” even though she observes that it’s “less a propulsive story than a series of vignettes.” In the performances, Berlin adds that director Gash “has created an ensemble of performers who work as a unit while each actor manages to maintain his individuality.” A “taut, well-written play,” writes Barbara Mackay of TheaterMania, which “unfolds through a series of short scenes,” and in which the “most interesting thing about these five men is the way they come together when singing.” “McCraney's writing,” observes Mackay, “is colorful and often poetic” and “Kent Gash keeps the action flowing quickly and smoothly.” The TM review-writer concludes, “McCraney is a young playwright to watch.”