Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2013 play Choir Boy is set in the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a (fictional) elite all-black private boarding school with a strict code of honor to go with its equally rigid dress code. “Snitching” is strictly prohibited, as the code demands that young men step up to own their transgressions voluntarily. So when Pharus (Tru Verret-Fleming), the newly-appointed leader of the school’s choir, is verbally harassed by another student, Bobby (Justin Lonesome) for being a “sissy,” he’s honor-bound not to report to the headmaster, even though the harassment disrupted the school’s commencement ceremony and threatened to undermine the headmaster’s fundraising efforts with the school’s board.
That’s the initial conflict of the play, and from there it tentacles out to encompass a range of complicating tensions among the students themselves and between the students and their teachers. One of those tensions is class conflict: McCraney’s fictional school (like many real ones) makes a commitment to giving financial aid to needy students, so the boys we see come from a range of geographic and socio-economic backgrounds. There’s the Southern-born, athletically gifted Anthony (Lamont Walker II), whose parents can’t even afford the school supplies. There’s the religiously devout David (Mel Holley), on the road to becoming a pastor and dependent on good grades to keep his scholarship. There’s Pharus’s tormentor, the street-wise Bobby (Justin Lonesome), nephew of the headmaster and son of a member of the board (the only character in the play not on scholarship). And there’s Junior (LaTrea Rembert), a cultural outsider from Jamaica who’s found his niche as hanger-on to Bobby. Although all of the boys have high stakes in their education, they differ in the sacrifices they’ve had to make to get it, and this brews resentment among them. Another tension stems from the students’ disconnect from their history: Bobby’s use of “the n-word” enrages their new (white) teacher, Mr. Pendleton (Jeff Howell), who marched beside MLK Jr. and “lost too many good friends behind that word.” Yet another tension comes from the headmaster’s desire to put on a good front for his board and funders by keeping problems hidden. But the play’s biggest tension has to do with attitudes toward sexuality. Pharus is in a transparent closet: everyone knows he is gay, yet it remains an unspoken “secret” among the students and faculty alike (the headmaster repeatedly warns him about his “wrist,” and his roommate, Anthony, is fully aware of Pharus’s interest in his body). Bobby’s enmity toward Pharus stems from undisguised homophobia, and the shame he is able to associate with homosexuality ends up having devastating consequences in unexpected quarters.
The story is told not only in dialogue but also, beautifully, through music. The vibrant, youthful cast forms a masterful a capella gospel quintet, and they bring energy, passion, and charisma to the musical numbers. Director Tomé Cousin has set the songs to dynamic choreography, and the music and dance really make the play zing. Lindsey B. Mayer’s clever scenic design tucks dorm beds and showers behind paneled walls, allowing for quick transitions between scenes and plenty of open space for the movement. The costumes, by Michael Montgomery, have an authentic vibe of boarding school culture, down to the colorfully striped ties and socks (the only customizable clothing item allowed?).
While the ensemble does a terrific job of bringing the boarding school dynamic to life, there are some aspects of the play that don’t fully gel. For one thing, although the play is set in the present day, it feels at times like the characters still live, attitudinally at least, in the 1970s. The headmaster is “shocked” to learn of sexual activity among the boys in his school, and Mr. Pendleton introduces his method of teaching (he tells the boys he’ll teach them to think critically rather than just feed them knowledge) as if it’s a newly discovered pedagogical method. And among the students, only Anthony has the kind of “live and let live” comfort with homosexuality that – according to most polls – is prevalent among high school students today. In addition, at times the central interest of the play is hard to pinpoint – between the headmaster’s concern over the future of the school, Pharus’s conflict with Bobby, and Mr. Pendleton’s desire to intervene in the boys’ education it can get a little difficult to discern the play’s primary narrative thread. Our best clue comes from the row of portraits of black leaders hovering above the scene: for in the end, the play seems to argue that in their quest to groom the next generation of African-American leaders, private schools like Drew need to find a way of supporting, nurturing, and providing role models for their queer and transgender students as well.