Choral Issues

Choral Issues

As the lights go up on Yale Rep’s Choir Boy and the paneled hall of the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys—“dedicated to the education of strong, ethical Black men”—Headmaster Marrow regally welcomes the audience to the academy’s 49th commencement. The school choir is singing, and, on cue, student Pharus Young takes center stage, transforming the school song from a standard hymn to a melismatic quest for glory—until distracted by the just-loud-enough homophobic slurs of Bobby, another choir member and the headmaster’s nephew.

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Choir Boy explores how to be part of a community—a choir member, a good Christian, a “Drew man”—while being true to oneself. We follow the boys over the course of a school year as they negotiate shifting impulses—to fit in or stand out; to honor or rebel; to include or exclude. The characters frequently break into song: mostly spirituals, but also a recurring hymn as well as music made famous by Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, L.T.D. and New Edition.

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Led by music director and vocal arranger Allen René Louis, the cast blended as well as they soloed. Their songs felt transformative, not merely decorative. One soul-baring scene soars with an eight-voice version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” which ends abruptly when Pharus (Israel Erron Ford) shows up and tosses in a prima donna bit—a reminder that the world doesn’t always want a soloist. The world isn’t around when Pharus’s classmate, David (Aaron James McKenzie), launches into a healing and revealing rendition of L.T.D’s “Love Ballad,” backed up by imagined choir boys in red sequin jackets.

Choir Boy’s familiar repertoire underscores the characters’ archetypal qualities—as the unknown lover, the wounded bully, the thwarted striver. Hovering above them all, in stained-glass panels throughout the school, are deified versions of their forebears, as well as their current and future selves, all sporting halos. The sense that there’s something deeper connecting generations of Drew men is furthered by the anachronistic absence of internet and mobile devices. Despite being set in the present, phones only appear at Drew during scheduled periods when the students call home.

The play’s spirituals likewise feel at once hallowed and fresh, and their underlying significance becomes clearer as Pharus and Bobby hash out one of their many disagreements. Do the lyrics offer coded directions about how to escape literal enslavement?, as Bobby thinks. Or do they provide timeless “spiritual healing,” necessary for the strength and hope that foster resistance and action?, as Pharus argues. Listening to their funny, contentious, heartfelt debate, I realized their viewpoints mirrored the play’s use of music as a vessel for healing or rebellion or showing the way.

Directed by Christopher D. Betts, the performances were top-notch. Actor Anthony Holiday brought a simmering resentfulness to Bobby, and Allen Gilmore portrayed Headmaster Marrow with rigid good intentions hemmed in by propriety and institution. Ford in the lead role served up a heady cocktail of vulnerability and assertiveness as he wavered between self-doubt and confidence. Pharus’s roommate, AJ, who loves Pharus the way you love your friends at that age, was played to low-key perfection by Malik James, who captured an un-haloed but tender compassion the world could use so much more of.

AJ’s not the choir boy in Choir Boy, nor does he embody that expression’s more pejorative aspects. But, as a moral anchor of the play, he might deserve the title anyway.

Written by Heather Jessen. Photographed by Joan Marcus for Yale Repertory Theatre.

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