I’m not one to buy into the hype foisted upon every new, Black queer cultural production to hit the pop culture landscape. But for Choir Boy, the Broadway debut of Tarell Alvin McCraney who won a best adapted screenplay Oscar (with director Barry Jenkins) in 2017 for Moonlight (which was based on his unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), the hype is real! An unabashed and unapologetic interrogation of Black masculinity, queer antagonism, and the redemptive powers of (self) love, Choir Boy, which opened Tuesday at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is exactly what Broadway, and the greater world, needs.
Directed by Trip Cullman and set in the halls and dorms of Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a space that for nearly 50 years has been dedicated to the education of strong, ethical Black men, Choir Boy centers on one talented student, Pharus (Jeremy A. Pope). He’s an effeminately fabulous teen who’s been waiting years to take lead of the school’s legendary gospel choir. But Bobby (Quinton Johnson), his hateful, homophobic foe and nephew of the school’s headmaster (Chuck Cooper) has other plans.
The play opens at graduation with the junior class choir members singing the school’s anthem, “Trust and Obey.” It’s from this moment that we know we’re in for a stirring treat of vocal proportions as Pharus attacks his solo like only the best singer in the school can. Bobby distracts him however by calling Pharus an anti-gay slur and “everything but a child of God.” What follows is, for me, an all-too-familiar journey.
I graduated from Morehouse College, the “nation’s headquarters for Black male excellence” that boasts notable alumni Martin Luther King Jr., Samuel Jackson, and Spike Lee among others. With our own world-renowned choir, the Morehouse College Glee Club — of which I was not a member — the historically Black institution is ripe for Black (and brown) men being confronted with their sometimes-homophobic views of queer people. My sophomore year, for example, Vibe magazine wrote an article titled The Mean Girls of Morehouse, about a group of nonconforming students known as “The Plastics,” that launched a firestorm, in media and on campus, about how the institution treated, and treats, its gay, bisexual, queer and trans students. So when I see Pharus, a brilliant student whose mannerisms are read by others as gay long before he used the word to describe himself, it’s like looking in the mirror.
As Pharus, Pope (who originated the role in the show’s Off-Broadway premiere in 2013) is arresting from the absolute top of the play to its emotional end. I couldn’t help but smile each time he opened his mouth, flinging his arms and hips and neck with abandon and little care for how it may be received by others. Sure, many of the character's traits, and how Pope plays him, traffic in the realm of stereotypes and clichés. And to that point, other early reviews of the play have noted this concern as well as the fact that other characters seem to be throwaways or not fully developed.
But at its core, and from McCraney’s inspired mind, Choir Boy is a response to the Great White Way (and Hollywood beyond) and how Black characters in non-Black plays, and queer characters in some Black plays, are often rendered. More likely than not, roles like Pharus are reserved for the gay best friend or sassy hairdresser trope. Here however, he is the subject of his own narrative with his peers in the ensemble. If that means the other characters — the straight ones and the white one — lack some of the development audiences might be looking for, I say welcome to the club. It’s time they get a taste of what I see and experience in almost every other cultural production. This isn’t to say that I don’t agree with them, but rather that Choir Boy is more than just your average play.
My barometer for deciding whether live productions that include music are actually doing what they intend to do is goosebumps. I counted at least nine times that the little hairs on my arms stood up. Many of them involved the church-like stylings of Pope, who, if there were more Black people in the audience, would’ve had a couple different praise breaks on his hands. But kudos must also go to Caleb Eberhardt who plays choir member David; his lead vocals at the start of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” made me sit up in my seat and approvingly grunt like only a church queen can.
While the acting isn’t as lived-in as I’d like and the pacing isn’t as smooth as I’m sure it’s intended — to be fair, it was a preview — Choir Boy soars even higher when the ensemble comes together. The harmonies are tight, like any a capella group’s should be, a credit to Jason Michael Webb’s musical direction and a supremely talented ensemble that includes Queen Sugar’s Nicholas L. Ashe, Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, John Clay III, and Marcus Gladney. And Camille A. Brown’s choreography, inspired by Black fraternities’ and sororities’ tradition of stepping, is spot-on for the world created and delivered with the might of 10,000 African warrior-ancestors by the cast.
Surely, what audiences will see in Choir Boy is something unique. It’s Black, queer, and uncompromising about it all. And when I tell you they are sangin’, I mean it! But for that reason, it’s a show that should be sold out until it closes. And as someone who is more familiar with what’s rendered on stage, I left with one simple feeling: seen.