Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney had a pretty good week last week. Not only did his play “Choir Boy” open at the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage on Wednesday, but a day earlier it was announced that McCraney was among the 24 recipients of a $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to simply as the “Genius Grant.”
The award is just one of the many prestigious honors that have been bestowed on the 32-year-old writer lately: he is a member of Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre; he was named a New York Times Outstanding Playwright in 2009; he was among the first winners of Yale’s new Windham-Campbell Literature Prize; and he was international playwright-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company for three years. Anyone in Atlanta curious to see for themselves what all the fuss is about need look no further than the Alliance’s production of “Choir Boy,” running through October 13.
“Choir Boy” tells the story of Pharus Young (Jeremy Pope), who’s entering his senior year at the fictional Charles R. Drew School for Boys, an African-American prep school. Pharus is a bright, successful student, and he’s also a talented singer, the leader of the chorus, which is the pride and public face of the school. But he is also flamboyantly effeminate and makes little effort to hide his difference. It creates a dilemma for the school’s headmaster (Charles E. Wallace) and invites taunts from other students, particularly Bobby (Joshua Boone), on whom Pharus enacts revenge by kicking him out of the choir, an act that initiates a year-long, simmering feud between the two very different young men.
Things never feel preachy or easy or pat in “Choir Boy,” though its inclusion of politically charged identities and spirituality are just the kind of inviting touchstones that might easily lure and sink a less adept playwright. The all-male school is not a monolithic bulwark demanding conformity, and its redeeming virtues are allowed to become apparent over time, and with an eye for boarding school rituals that give it authenticity.
McCraney masterfully pulls into the frame matters of history, sexuality, identity and politics, all of them specifically grounded in the characters and their world, but also with all their immensity, complexity and uncertainty left intact. The characters are fleshed out with integrity, and although McCraney’s feelings for them are clearly heartfelt, what we as an audience are meant to feel about them is never fixed or forced on us.
As accomplished as McCraney is, however, I think the bulk of the praise here must go to the cast. McCraney’s style has a lovely sort of openness and vastness, which leaves a great deal resting on the shoulders of the actors, and many of the cast members are in their early 20s and even younger.
Pope, as Pharus, is an actor who is interesting even just standing there. When the lights go up, he is onstage at graduation, waiting to be introduced by the headmaster to sing the school song. A weird and strangely active mixture of pride, awkwardness, forthrightness, confidence and uncertainty are all visible in his face and movements before he speaks or sings a single note. Boone, as Bobby, brings out the humanity of what could easily be an unsympathetic character. John Stewart, recently profiled as one of ArtsATL’s “30 Under 30,” is especially touching as Pharus’ protective roommate, A.J.
“Choir Boy” acts as a sort of container for traditional spiritual songs, which are woven throughout, and though the songs are always related to the plot, they don’t sit there superficially or simply. It’s a setting in which we search the songs to see how they might relate and what they might contain, which is, it turns out, quite a lot. They contain unity, sweetness, grace, comfort and order, all of the things the characters are clearly seeking but can’t always find or even speak of in other ways.
Click here to view more photos from the production.