Choir Boy explores gay Black manhood at Steppenwolf

Photo by Michael Brosilow

It is a wonderful coincidence that now, during Pride month, just after an inventive musical about a gay Black man trying to find his voice (A Strange Loop) won Best Musical at the Tony Awards, Steppenwolf Theatre brings Chicago a revival of 2012’s Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney: a play filled with so many spiritual songs that it may as well be a musical, also about a gay Black man (well, a boy in this case) trying to find his voice. While A Strange Loop, which I still have not seen, treats its subject in a highly imaginative and comic way, McCraney—an Oscar-winner for Moonlight screenplay, which he and Barry Jenkins adapted from McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue—wrote Choir Boy in a much more serious and realistic vein.

The play centers on Pharus (an amazing Tyler Hardwick, who—like most of the cast—is making his Steppenwolf debut), a rising senior at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a fictional institution that molds Black youth into “Drew men” and expects them to be perfect specimens of Black manhood…according to its own exacting standards. Pharus, who has been named leader of the school’s award-winning choir for the upcoming year, is a gifted singer and a fine, intelligent student, but he is also something that goes significantly against the grain: he is overtly gay and refuses to hide it.

While many at Drew accept, tolerate, or simply ignore Pharus’ orientation, including Headmaster Marrow (a sympathetic La Shawn Banks) and Pharus’ baseball jock roommate AJ (the imposing but gentle Sheldon D. Brown), there are also loud and unfiltered voices of intolerance. Chief among those is fellow tenor Bobby (Gilbert Domally in a wonderfully caustic performance), the headmaster’s nephew, who seems determined to belittle Pharus at every moment he can. Their mutual animosity is set in the play’s first scene, in which Pharus’ commencement solo is interrupted by Bobby’s repeated use of the f-word, whispered just loud enough for Pharus to hear. The gay boy’s lingering anger comes to a head at the first fall meeting of the choir, when Bobby’s continued obnoxious behavior prompts Pharus—still feeling the pain from last spring’s graduation—kicks Bobby out of the group.

The choir—which now consists only of Pharus; AJ; David (Richard David), a serious-minded young man who has a calling to become a pastor; and Junior (Samuel B. Jackson), a poor student but a gifted baritone who is, like his best friend Bobby, a junior at the school—is still able to soar with voices that range from angelic to deep and powerful. Each song is accompanied by Byron Easley’s dynamic choreography, making these traditional spirituals even more powerful, as director Kent Gash provides a showcase for singers who, on opening night, received many shout-outs and ovations from the appreciative audience. (There is even one song, sung by David, that overtly exhorts that audience to respond, apparently breaking the fourth wall until we learn that he is only imagining the onlookers.)

Pharus is a difficult young man. He obviously should not have to pretend to be someone other than who he is, but he also does himself no favors when he purposely swishes around the chorus room like Martin Short’s old Ed Grimley character or engages in bawdy gay double entendres with AJ—a friend and ally but decidedly hetero—in public. It’s an old, traditional, conservative institution, as Arnel Sancianco’s massive, incredible set constantly reminds us. Pharus’ intellectual and singing prowess can only protect him so far, yet he continues to push the envelope. When a new (White) teacher arrives (played by veteran performer William Dick) and tries to spur the boys to think outside the box, Pharus doesn’t even hesitate to use the opportunity to argue his pet theory that the old spirituals were not what Black scholars claim them to be…though he knows this thesis will just anger Bobby. Pharus is, according to himself, simply right, and that’s all that matters. Maybe he really is right, but he lacks the learned wisdom of the Black icons whose portraits shine atop the set—Obama, Douglass, King, DuBois, X—who understood better than him how best to effect change.

In addition to the towering, impressive set, other design elements here are also excellent. Jason Lynch’s lighting is pretty much brilliant (no pun intended), among other things lending shower scenes realism and emotional power. Kara Harmon’s costumes create a visual harmony on stage, and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s sound design allows the audience to hear the individual voices along with the vocal harmony. Gash takes full advantage of all of this as well as his incredibly talented cast. This is a show you won’t want to miss.

Choir Boy plays at Steppenwolf Theatre through July 24.

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