Choir Boy (Mill Valley)
There’s theatre that makes you laugh, theatre that makes you cry, and theatre that makes you think. There’s theatre that affirms your belief system and theatre that challenges it. There’s theatre that takes you to a world you’ve never set foot in, and theatre that forces you to revisit a world that you had long ago left behind. There’s theatre with characters that are absolutely foreign to you and theatre with characters that seem to be comprised of pieces of yourself. Rare is the theatre that can encompass it all and do it well. Such is Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, an emotionally devastating yet ultimately life affirming “play with music” that closes out Marin Theatre Company’s 48th season.
Pharus Young (Jelani Alladin) is a student at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, an African-American boarding school. He’s an important part of the school’s renowned choir. He’s gay and decidedly (and often flamboyantly) out but not particularly proud. While singing at the school’s 49th commencement, Pharus is startled by a voice hurling derogatory epithets at him. The voice came from the student area. The school Headmaster (Ken Robinson) demands to know what startled him and caused him to stop singing. Pharus refuses to tell him. There’s a code at Drew that speaks to being a “man”, and he will abide by it.
Returning the next year as the leader of the a cappella choir, he’s cocky and self-assured in his talent but still not so much in himself. He’s kept to the code but the Headmaster has discovered that the culprit was his nephew Bobby (Dimitri Woods), a fellow member of the choir. Bobby accuses Pharus of snitching on him, which Pharus denies. Pharus throws him out of the choir, which sets the stage for the ever-growing conflict between Pharus and Bobby, and between Pharus and himself.
McCraney addresses many issues within the construct of his 100 uninterrupted-minute play. Homophobia, racism, classism, elitism, self-loathing, “masculinity” and “femininity”, generational differences and the often conflicting roles of religion are all touched on. He does this via fully-formed characters that challenge the stereotype of the young black male. These young men are driven, ambitious, poor, self-entitled, educated, inexperienced, energetic, wounded, funny, frightening, egotistical, doubtful, thoughtful, questioning, impulsive, hateful and loving – in short, human. While their personalities may initially seem to fall along the lines of the standard high school caricatures ie “the jock”, ‘the brain”, et al., McCraney and his cast add layers of human complexity to them.
The entire cast, under the direction of Kent Gash, gives flawless performances as the young men and the adults in their school lives. Though most are of college age or beyond, the young men (Alladin, Woods, Jaysen Wright, Forest Van Dyke, and Retimi Agbabiaka) manage to encapsulate the awkwardness and braggadocio of a teenager and instill each character with the varying strengths and vulnerabilities of teenage youth. Robinson does well as the Headmaster, who struggles with the responsibilities and pressures that come with running an all-boys school and yet is clueless when it comes to the reality of what types of relationships that kind of environment can cultivate. Charles Shaw Robinson as Mr. Pendleton, the choir’s new sponsor, while initially giving the impression of being mainly there for comic relief, is the key component in an electric scene involving the use of the “n” word.
As it is a choir that brings these men together, most scenes are bridged with an a capella performance of a spiritual or gospel song. These men, under the musical direction of Darius Smith, can sing. Whether breaking your heart or making it soar, the music and singing adds a rich dimension to Choir Boy. It also factors into the aforementioned scene involving Mr. Pendleton that begins with a debate over the accepted history of the “negro spiritual” and ends shockingly.
What also may be shocking to some in attendance is the significant amount of nudity in this production. Jason Sherwood’s scenic design transforms the Marin Theatre stage from a commencement stand to an administrator’s office to a classroom, from a dormitory room to a functioning communal shower. That shower is a key setting for several scenes. The first has the students singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and you are reminded that these are children that are not yet men standing naked before you. The nudity is completely non-exploitative. Initial discomfort gives way to an appreciation of the vulnerability that comes from standing naked before others, and with that the power of the spiritual’s lyrics grows exponentially – “Sometimes I feel like I have no friend… Sometimes I feel like I’ve never been born… Sometimes I feel like I’m almost dead… A long way from home… A long way from home…” The second scene is no less powerful though for substantially different reasons.
It would be simple to reduce Choir Boy to a simple “man’s inhumanity to man” tale – however well told – with the protagonist struggling to overcome all odds and stand triumphant as the lights fade. Simple, but inaccurate. Choir Boy is a tale of man’s humanity to man, how the act of a single individual can empower, inspire and enable another individual to embrace life.
The play’s penultimate scene is set in the dorm room shared by Pharus and his roommate AJ (Jaysen Wright). Their relationship is at the core of this play. It’s the night before graduation and Pharus is in the grips of fear and anxiety. Something occurred that has shaken his faith – in himself, in others, in God. AJ, the campus jock who would seem to be Pharus’s polar opposite and the least likely person to room with, does what he can to ease his friend’s pain, first through the simple offering of a haircut, then with an act that was one of the most moving expressions of true love, trust and acceptance – fraternal or otherwise – I have ever seen portrayed on stage. My heart ached for Pharus. My heart ached with Pharus. Pharus’s simple two-word declaration to AJ for his kindness – “Thank you.” – hit me unlike any other theatrical moment of recent memory. McCraney and Alladin capture that moment of realization that everyone wishes for, the moment that you realize you are loved, that you are cared for, that you matter to someone for the totality of who you are, that you will not be shunned just for pieces of your being, and reduces it to two simple scripted words and one devastating yet exhilarating moment.
I made personal connections to this play – in the characters, in the circumstances and situations – that reminded me of the power of theatre and its impact on an individual. This show resonated with me like no other I can think of in the last fifteen years. You may not think you can relate to a story about young black men. You may not think you can have any understanding of what it means to grow up gay. But if you’ve ever felt alone, if you’ve ever been afraid, if you’ve ever felt unloved, if you’ve ever felt the sting of rejection, then this show will speak to you. If you’ve ever wanted to be a part of something so much and desperately tried to bury your individuality in a shroud of conformity, this show will speak to you. If you’ve ever challenged the status quo, traditional institutions or beliefs, this show will speak to you. If you’ve ever reached out to a person under siege from any of the aforementioned and helped them through a difficult time, this show will speak to you. If you’ve ever offered a person your complete, unconditional love and acceptance, this show will speak to you.
If you love great theatre, Choir Boy will sing to you.
Show run extended through July 5
Evenings – Tue, Thu, Fri, Sat @ 8pm * Wed @ 7:30pm * Sun @ 7pm
Matinees – Sun @ 2pm * Sat 6/13 & 6/27 @ 2pm * Thu 6/18 @ 1pm
No Show July 4
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA 94941
Photos by Kevin Berne