Review: Choir Boy @ The Geffen Playhouse
By Amber Wilson

This fall, Choir Boy comes to the West Coast for the first time at The Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, after originally premiering at London’s Royal Court Theatre and making its American debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York last year. Directed by Trip Cullman and written by Tarell Alvin MCCraney.

org_img_1410996925_LChoir Boy is a coming-of-age drama that unfolds at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys—a strict, all-male boarding school that aims to groom boys not merely into men, but more specifically, into Drew men. The 90-minute play begins with the main character Pharus Young (Jeremy Pope) as a high school junior, singing a solo selection at senior graduation. It follows him into the fall semester and beyond, during his zealous quest to do what’s never been done before: secure the coveted soloist part at graduation once again, this time at his own ceremony.

Pharus is easy to fall in love with, a charismatic individual who has a bright, bubbly disposition and a zealous passion for the prestigious school choir that he leads. Surrounding Pharus are four young men—Junior, Bobby, David and Anthony (Nicholas L. Ashe, Donovan Mitchell, Caleb Eberhardt and Grantham Coleman respectively)—all living, taking classes and singing in choir together. Headmaster Marrow (Michael A. Shepperd) is the authoritarian figure struggling to steer his students in the right direction, and Mr. Pendleton (Leonard Kelly-Young), is a retired teacher who returns to Drew, attempting to inspire the boys in his Creative Thinking class.

The focal point of Choir Boy remains on Pharus, chronicling the challenges he faces with being gay and pursuing his musical aspirations in a socially conservative environment. He loves the prep school, considering it to be a refuge that provides him with space to be himself. But as much as he strives to be a proud Drew man, he struggles to be recognized as one by his peers and superiors alike. His former roommate had previously abandoned him. A fellow student hisses a derogatory slur at him during his solo performance at graduation, causing him to abruptly halt, subsequently ruining the show, according to Headmaster Marrow, who outright criticizes his performance. The headmaster also constantly reprimands and corrects Pharus, threatens to pull him from choir and instructs him to watch how he “flicks” his wrists.

And truthfully, as confident and passionate as he is about his musical prowess, radiantly shining in the limelight, there’s a gut-wrenchingly painful insecurity that subtly haunts Pharus at times. Thus, the question emerges: can Pharus learn to be comfortable in his own skin and find acceptance at the school he loves so much? That answer is complex.

org_img_1410997219_LPharus isn’t alone in his struggle to navigate life’s twists and turns. His four peers each wrestle with their own trials and tribulations, from dealing with financial hardships, death and academics, to selecting occupations, coming to terms with their own sexuality and feeling isolated from family members. They turn to one another for support and camaraderie, often times butting heads, but sharing just as many moments of enlightenment as moments of rage, as many laughs as arguments. They have different backgrounds, interests and aspirations, but they’re united by their devotion to music and to their prized choir, demonstrated in their ethereal harmonization of both gospel standards and original compositions.

Like a rebellious adolescent itself, Choir Boy also addresses and confronts many longstanding, revered traditions and beliefs within the African-American community. Nothing is spared, as it questions the origins of spirituals, the notion of the barbershop as the sanctified retreat for black men and the assumed privilege that legacy brings. It challenges the use of the word “n***a” between blacks and the problematic yet perpetuated stigma associated with “snitching” to authorities (“A Drew man doesn’t tell on his brother,” Pharus confidently proclaims, refusing to reveal who insulted him during his performance at graduation). The characters explore these issues in their engaging intellectual conversations with one another and also through effortless dialogue, quick banter and smooth jokes. Their insightful, articulate exchanges are accented by brief moments of song that are so delightful that there should certainly be more of them throughout the entire production.

org_img_1410996892_LThe chemistry between the actors is natural and relaxed, with the young men displaying an insatiable, contagious energy. The stage design is brilliant in its simplicity, with basic, sharp blacks and reds creating a moodily brooding atmosphere. Subtle nuances in the design elements augment the themes expressed in the dialogue and support the overall message of the production. The tense, hissing sound of steam seductively seeping onto the stage in the shower scenes as the men strip down to their bare skin; the bright, floral shower cap that Pharus wears—his posters of Beyonce, Oprah, Frank Ocean and Abraham Lincoln with a large bow Photoshopped onto his head, blatantly juxtaposed to his roommate Anthony’s masculine, baseball-centric posters—they all help to subtly reveal more about Pharus’ idiosyncrasies in each scene.

There are plenty of amusing, lighthearted exchanges, but there are more interactions that expose the growing pains of being an adolescent—of becoming a unique individual only to discover that sometimes there may be a conflict between being true to one’s identity and with adhering to larger, social expectations. Choir Boy presents this life lesson in a captivating and bittersweet manner, revealing in the end that while the ones closest to us may betray and hurt us, friendship, loyalty—and therefore acceptance—can be found sometimes in the most unexpected places.


About the author: Amber Wilson is from Los Angeles and writes about “where to eat, drink and be merry” on her #WilsonsGuide blog: