Kel Tells: Choir Boy
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
In an effort to see more theater and hone my critical writing skills, I’m introducing a new series on the blog: Kel Tells! This series will consist of reviews of (primarily) Broadway plays and musicals, featuring my opinions, thoughts and critical analyses of various elements of the productions. After seeing shows that I love be picked apart by critics from various publications over the years, I thought I might offer a different perspective: one that operates through a lens of optimism, admiration, and adoration for this art form in ALL its forms – traditional, progressive, even outrageous and never-before-experienced. Despite approaching these reviews from a perspective of wanting the production to succeed, I will not be untruthful, will never give any spoilers, and will call out anything noteworthy that I think might benefit the audience member to absorb. It is my hope that you can look to these reviews as a credible, truthful, yet positive perspective on new theatre in New York City.
Welcome to Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, where all are fearfully and magnificently made, tongues are sharp, wit is thick, and snitching is a one-way ticket to hell (at least among the brotherhood of boys that make up our mighty, boisterous, and ultra-talented ensemble).
Written by the Academy Award-winning Tarell Alvin McCraney (of Moonlight acclaim), Choir Boy embodies the conflicting, and at times repelling, themes of sexuality, faith, and brotherhood. Acapella spirituals, pop songs, and hymns with multi-part harmonies are expertly woven through the production, acting as scenic transitions, bonding moments between characters, and at times, a vehicle for expression during a heightened emotional state. It’s hard to discern which has a larger impact on the audience: Jason Michael Webb‘s heartfelt, passionate arrangements (often accompanied by military-like step movement by Camille A. Brown) or the thick, poignant text that somehow both packs a punch and gently invites the listener in simultaneously.
We meet Pharus (Jeremy Pope), our protagonist – a confident, self-described “blessed and highly favored,” openly-gay, young man who freely displays his effeminate nature despite the almost always-expected backlash from the headmaster’s privileged nephew, Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson). Pharus is in his senior year at the boys’ school, and has just assumed the lead position in the gospel choir, a role that is considered a great honor in the school and an even greater honor to Pharus. After previously absorbing a few racial and homophobic slurs from Bobby onstage at the last commencement ceremony, Pharus’s first act as choir lead is to dismiss him from the group on the basis of his inability to essentially “work well with others.” The two verbally and confrontationally depart and return to one another often throughout the play, usually with specific homophobic hatred on Bobby’s part, and with sassy, spunky retort on Pharus’s.
The other boys, Junior (Bobby’s Dopey-like sidekick, played by Nicholas L. Ashe), AJ (Pharus’s straight-ally roommate and arguably the hero of the story, embodied earnestly and sincerely by John Clay III), and David (a cautious, dedicated, focused-on-graduating ex-bad boy, brought to life by Caleb Eberhardt), all outwardly don’t seem to mind Pharus’s mannerisms despite their individual uncomfortable interactions with him, which happen for each of them at different points throughout the ninety-five minute production.
Pharus frequently visits the Headmaster (played by a stoic, steady, and at times conflicted Chuck Cooper), usually not at his own will. Headmaster Marrow has a soft spot in his heart for Pharus, and aims to protect him, but instead of empowering Pharus by giving him the agency and authority over his authentic self, he tells him to “keep it tight,” warning him against allowing too much action to result from his natural tendencies.
Throughout the show, we are taken on a journey of the lives of these young men, battling with acceptance, faith, and redefining strength in reference to where they came from, who they are, and where they’re going. What ensues is a truly human story, a healthy combination of both heartwarming and heart-wrenching moments, and some incredible acting, especially and most notably by Mr. Pope (who will also be playing Eddie Kendricks in Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations, opening in March on Broadway). I suspect a Tony nomination for his work in Choir Boy, and deservedly so.
Choir Boy is directed by Trip Cullman (who brought us the brilliance of another coming-of-age play, Significant Other, back in 2017). He achieves a level of organic magic not only with his staging and guidance of the characters, but also by creating and allowing so much BREATHING space: moments where dialogue was nonexistent, but my jaw was on the floor in shock. Those moments of stillness and silence where we’re completely in the palm of the actor’s hands is the work of the sheer genius of Mr. Cullman, who also gives us an ending that is equal parts ambiguity and satisfaction, a combination that made me want to continue analyzing the play long after the final bow.
All in all, I think this play is certainly one you will want to catch as soon as you can. Whether you see yourself in one of, all of, or none of the characters, this is the type of piece that will completely envelope you into the world of the play – giving you a shotgun seat perspective at the trials, tribulations, victories, and defeats of these young men. What a joy it is to be swept away mentally, moved emotionally, and challenged cerebrally – to find the volume in the silence, the profundity in the understated, and the joy and hope in seemingly exacerbated circumstances.
Run-time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (no intermission) Location: Samuel J Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th St.) Tickets: – Telecharge – TodayTix (For discounted and rush tickets) – BroadwayBox (For discounted tickets) – Manhattan Theatre Club’s 30 Under 35 Program
Do attend if you: – Usually prefer musicals to plays, but want to broaden your horizons – Love a riff – Want to have a moving theatrical experience
Don’t attend if you: – Are sensitive to profanity, nudity, or religious themes – Prefer lighthearted comedies – Are offended by the idea of a progressive, inclusive religious environment
Have you seen Choir Boy yet? What were your thoughts on it? Did I forget to mention anything crucial? Drop me a comment below!
All photos by Linnae Medeiros.