Nicholas J. Ashe, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy
Pope, Caleb Eberhardt ,John Clay III
Photos by Matthew Murphy
By Ron Cohen
In 1968, the
writings of Lorraine Hansberry were adapted into a posthumous play entitled To
Be Young, Gifted and Black. The title, later shaped into a song by Nina
Simone, became an anthem for its generation. Now, Tarell Alvin McCraney in his Choir
Boy extends the equation with an additional element – gay –and it makes for
a drama that is both absorbing and illuminating.
Choir Boy was first presented in 2013 in
Manhattan Theatre Club’s small Stage II space, receiving strong reviews and two
extensions. Since then, McCraney has added to his laurels with an Oscar for
co-writing the screenplay for Moonlight, which also took the Academy
Award as best film of 2016. (The screenplay was based on his script In Moonlight
Black Boys Look Blue.)
current Broadway mounting by MTC, Choir Boy more than lives up to both
its and its author’s reputation.
depicts the coming of age of a group of students at an exclusive preparatory
school for black males. While the concerns deal specifically with being black,
and even more particularly, with a student who is gay, McCraney’s writing
vibrates with a universal appeal in its understanding of the turmoils of simply
growing up and in colorfully revealing the foibles and the strengths of his
characters, both the students and the adults guiding them.
As the center
of the story is Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope), who seems comfortable with
both his sexuality and his occasional effeminate behavior. His standing in the
school is fortified by his phenomenal singing and talented musicianship,
qualities that in his senior year have given him leadership of the school’s
celebrated choir. The problems that arise come from the reactions he causes
among his fellow students, most prominently Bobby Marrow, whose homophobia runs
deep, aggravated by the scars of racism.
begins at the commencement exercises at the end of Pharus’s junior year, when
he has the honor of singing the solo that ushers in the graduates. His concentration
is momentarily distracted when Bobby behind him snickers quietly: “Sissy… Dis
sissy… This faggot ass Nigga…”
As the play
moves through Pharus’s senior year, the confrontations between the two mount,
and one point, Bobby is removed from the choir, despite being the nephew of the
school’s headmaster. Warning a fellow student against association with Pharus,
Bobby says: “Don’t let these sissies get you by association…My daddy say they
used to let you get away with a lil bit because they know how hard it is to be
a black man out there. Now, everything got to be watched, gotta be careful,
gotta be cordial. Don’t say nothing, don’t say that word…”
an untoward incident shattering Pharus’s self-confidence. One of his closest
friends is expelled from school and Pharus is put on probation, barring in any
way his soul-defining participation in the choir. But in a conclusion that
quietly glows with grace, Pharus’s sense of self is restored by an act of pure
friendship and acceptance from a fellow student.
storytelling is further deepened by the introduction of the white teacher Mr.
Pendleton, a civil rights activist who, we’re told, marched with Martin Luther
King. Pendleton has come to the school to teach pro bono a class in creative
thinking. He is a welcome force and also becomes the faculty sponsor of the
choir. His time at the school, however, is cut short when he blows up over the
appropriation by Bobby of the N-word, something the teacher cannot understand
or tolerate. “I’ve lost enough friends behind that word,” says Pendleton.
Cullman, who directed the original production, again guiding the proceedings,
the script is given a life that crackles with urgency and meaning. Jeremy Pope
is a tremendously winning Pharus, endowing the character with a bone-deep
manliness beneath the sometimes and never overdone swishy mannerisms. J.
Quinton Johnson exposes tellingly the motivations behind Bobby’s anger, and
John Clay III and Caleb Eberhardt deliver fully delineated portraits of other
students deeply involved in the narrative.
The four also
enhance the stage further with a bevy of musical numbers, spirited and soulful,
validating the reputation of the school’s choir. Some of the numbers are
augmented by a four-man ensemble, consisting of Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke,
Gerald Caesar and Marcus Gladney. Music direction and arrangements are by Jason
Michael Webb, who also contributed original music along with sound designer
Fitz Patton. Camille A. Brown’s lively choreography is another important
further boasts a perfect portrayal of the benevolent and understanding overseer
in Chuck Cooper’s headmaster
Jeremy Pope and Chock Cooper
wonderful wit and emotion in Austin Pendleton’s Mr. Pendleton. (Yes, both the
character and the actor have the same last name.)
Pendleton and cast
cleverness of David Zinn’s set design is barely noticeable as it switches –
under Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting – in the proverbial blink of an eye to
immediately recognizable locations on the school’s campus, such as the quad,
classrooms, a dormitory room, even a steamy shower room. Zinn also did the
costumes, further helping to define event: casual gear for classroom, neckties
and dark blazers for graduation.
thoughtfulness of all elements befits a play that like Hansberry’s (and
Simone’s) To Be Young, Gifted and Black has the earmarks of become a
seminal work of its time.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th