Choir Boy

“What do you fight for? You fight when you know you’re right,” says the protagonist (who, sometimes, is a bit antagonistic) in the new play with music, Choir Boy. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s coming-of-age play centers on five black students in an all-male, Christian boarding school. They are at various levels in their academic careers but what brings them all together is the involvement in the school’s choir. What breaks them apart is their fight over what is right.

Pharus (Jeremy Pope), who asks the headmaster, “what do you fight for?” is the outlier of the group, gay and flamboyant. He loves being in the choir and respects and honors the traditions of the school (like not being a snitch, for example, even when your classmates are interrupting your commencement performance by slinging epithets at you).

It’s those codes – those dogmatic teachings for how you’re supposed to live your life – that are explored throughout McCraney’s play. It’s enjoyable to watch, although it doesn’t necessarily explore any new territory and much of the exploration comes out in the form of characters speechifying and engaging in borderline preaching discussions.

But, I was moved throughout the show, most notably when the boys sang their choir songs. Most of what they sang are spirituals (the genre actually was brought up and analyzed in the show – probably the most interesting discussion in the 100-minute play), and I’m always moved by such expressions.

What gets me about spirituals (at least as performed here) is that they are pure. The songs are emotional in and of themselves, and the performers aren’t performing so much as expressing a genuine and passionate sentiment. They don’t rely on tricks or auto-tuning or some other flashy aids in order to get across their point. They simply use what’s inside of them and it’s that human element that makes such performances so powerful. (Music direction and vocal arrangements are by Jason Michael Webb.)

It doesn’t hurt that Choir Boy is filled with a terrific ensemble, directed by Trip Cullman (Murder Ballad, Assistance). Joining Pope’s Pharus in the choir are Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe); David (a reserved Kyle Beltran); Anthony (a charming and sensitive Grantham Coleman); and Bobby (Wallace Smith (Godspell)). (Chuck Cooper and Austin Pendleton also appear, effectively, as the headmaster and a teacher, respectively.)

All five choir boys are impressive. In particular, Pope could easily get by with caricature, but instead he shads his performance so Pharus isn’t just the sass-talking, over confident boy we first meet.

In all, Choir Boy doesn’t quite reach the heights for which it strives, but it comes close and in doing so, makes for a satisfying, intimate evening of theatre.

Choir Boy is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II (where Murder Ballad premiered last fall). Visit the theatre company’s website to learn more about Choir Boy and to purchase tickets. And watch below as members of the creative team give you a “first look” at the play. (And head to TDF for insight into the spirituals.)