By Patrick O’Brien
To speak for musical theatre, we would call the 2017 Oscars a win-win. La La Land, an original, reasserted the viability of the film musical; Moonlight, adapted from a graduate drama school project by Tarell Alvin McCraney, demonstrated there were rich filmic storytelling veins yet to be tapped within yet-to-be healthily represented minority groups.
To speak for Chicagoland, we would say “What took Hollywood so long?” McCraney has been a writer and ensemble member of Steppenwolf since 2010, and he has enjoyed a (literally) certifiably genius career in the interim. Moonlight is thus far his capstone, exploring the intersection that is growing up both black and gay.
But in between McCraney’s first tinkering with the idea and his nail-biter of a victory at the Oscars, he wrote another such coming-of-age intersectional play: Choir Boy, now receiving its Chicago premiere at Raven Theatre. It’s an auspicious occasion, partly because of McCraney’s Oscar cred; partly because it’s a homecoming of sorts (before Steppenwolf, he got his bachelor’s at DePaul); and partly because this is director Michael Menendian’s swan song before he and his wife JoAnn Montemurro retire from Raven’s artistic directorship after some 35 years.
Maybe it was that coming change in leadership that set their hearts on Choir Boy, a coming-of-age piece exploring what it means to lead and what leading requires. As is often asked over the course of the play, “Would you rather be respected or feared?”
One prospective leader is Pharus (Christopher W. Jones), a senior at the prestigious Charles R. Drew Prep School for [African-American] Boys, and the leader of the choir, the symbol of student body harmony. He has the talent and passion to lead, for sure, and he’s outwardly confident — albeit excessively, recklessly so. But that outward confidence might be a necessary protection; Pharus is gay, and it’s apparent, but it’s rarely mentioned.
No, it is mentioned. Just about every fifth word out of Bobby (Patrick Agada), no great ally of Pharus, is a slur dedicated to reminding everybody of the fact. Such a slur kickstarts the play, even, when Bobby titters with tagalong friend Junior (Julian Terrell Otis) during Pharus’s ceremonial induction as choir master at convocation. Their dissonance embarasses Headmaster Marrow (Robert D. Hardaway), who has only been at the helm for two years, who is anxious to keep donors satisfied, and who is, of all people, Bobby’s uncle.
By year’s end, how these three square off with each other — and who they pull into their wake — leaves at least one bloodied and everybody else that much less sure of themselves.
And the audience stunned.
The year-in-the-life set-up may be well-trod, but McCraney’s perspective turns Choir Boy into something vital. Most importantly, his language is damn near music itself: lulling and lyrical one minute, prickling and stimulating the next, and percussive and jarring right after. You can certainly guess where it’s going to go, but it would serve you better to listen.
The language is so investing that one could conceivably do without a full physical production — just some chair-ography, say. And, really, the only demerit is that Raven’s is a very wide space and not particularly conducive to intimacy, which is what one would expect for an claustrophobic prep school atmosphere. Menendian’s choice, then, to keep everybody somewhat separate thus makes their group interactions a sliver more unpredictable. It could either mean another burst of ugliness or an outpouring of something harmonious.
Or perhaps both, like in the centerpiece scene in the boys’ “creative thinking” class overseen by Mr. Pendleton (Don Tieri), a former Drew teacher coaxed out of retirement by Marrow, in need of allies where he can get them. (Pendleton is also the sole white character, and he provides Civil Rights activism bona fides as well as a sad self-awareness that there may always be one gap or another between people.) He pushes his charges’ rhetorical skills to the edge, but he doesn’t have to turn up the temperature on either Pharus or Bobby, who strongly disagree on the purpose of African-American spirituals; namely, whether they were coded instructions for slaves escaping to freedom (Bobby’s side), or simply that their uplifting nature is their purpose (Pharus). Never has a high school debate been so suspenseful and must-see.
When the suspense cools? Frederick Harris gets due credit for directing the a capella interludes, as do the students who round out the ensemble and turn Choir Boy, the nominal play, into Choir Boy, a piece of music theatre: David (Darren Patin), whose calling to join the seminary increasingly feels confusing; and Anthony (Tamarus Harvell), Pharus’s roommate and sole confidante, a young man who can lead effortlessly.
And so, as a new class of soon-to-be “strong and ethical” citizens digs in their heels for the autumn, may they heed — or, really, may any and all citizens heed — the example of McCraney’s choir boys, who try to figure out what “strong and ethical” even means in an adult world brimming with plenty of the opposite. May their conclusions, if not come to total harmony, at least ride out the dissonances.
If they can do both, that’s a win-win.
Raven Theatre presents Choir Boy through November 12 at the company’s East Stage, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.