At the Raven Theatre
by Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Tarell Alvin McCraney first made a splash in Chicago theater in 2010 when the Steppenwolf Theatre staged his “The Brother/Sister Plays,” marking him as a major voice in contemporary American drama though he was still in his 20’s. McCraney joined the Steppenwolf ensemble that year and went on to receive a MacArthur Grant and this year shared an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie “Moonlight,” which was adapted for a McGraney short play. McCraney is now the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.
The Raven Theatre has landed McCraney’s 2013 drama “Choir Boy,” a show that could honor the schedule of a better known company like Goodman or Steppenwolf or the Court. Receiving its Chicago premiere, the play is a coup for the Raven and artistic director Michael Menendian has directed a production that does his company much credit.
“Choir Boy” runs only 85 minutes, long enough to touch an impressive number of emotional, dramatic, and theatrical bases. The action takes place in the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a school for black males that aspires to an Ivy League-type level of tradition and excellence. One of the school’s chief ornaments is its choir, known for its rendering of spirituals and hymns.
The play’s central character is a junior named Pharus Young. Pharus at least on the outside is a self-confident, almost smug young man who also has a fine expressive singing voice and holds the honor of leading the school choir the next school term. We meet the lad in the first scene as he proudly sings the school song at the graduation ceremony. During his rendition he overhears a couple of his fellow students sitting behind him whispering gay insults aimed at him. Pharus’s sexual preference isn’t exactly a school secret and he takes some delight in exhibiting gay mannerisms, like limp-wristed hand gestures, but beneath his veneer of self-confidence, Pharus is a vulnerable and anxious young man.
Pharus momentarily disrupts the graduation ceremony by openly reacting to the murmured insults behind him. Pharus’s brief glare at the offending students infuriates the headmaster, who is trying to run a smooth academic ship to curry favor with the board that is responsible for financing the institution. The headmaster demands that Pharus name the disrupters, but the lad is true to the school code and doesn’t snitch. The instigator of the slurs is Bobby Marrow, the nephew of one of the major school donors and fiercely hostile to Pharus because of his superiority airs and his homosexuality and because he just doesn’t like him.
The Pharus/Bobby enmity is the key plot point but there are other narrative threads. A student named David is going through a spiritual crisis, having recently found religion (the prep school seems to be nondenominational) and he is disturbed by Pharus’s homosexuality. A new teacher named Mr. Pendleton, the only white character on stage, conducts a class in something called “creative thinking” for Pharus and Bobby and three other students. The classroom discussion ascends into a heated analysis of slave spirituals, and whether they were a coded means of conveying information to help slaves escape to the north or whether they served a more long-term musical purpose. McCraney writes the scene as a fascinating examination of slave culture and its conflicting interpretations. McCraney’s sensitive and eloquent mixture of everyday language and heightened lyricism sustains the play at an absorbing level even when some of the plot points seem a little opaque.
The casting demands for “Choir Boy” are considerable. The show requires five young African American males who can act, sing both solo and in group harmony, and dance—all at a high level. The five students must weave black religious music in and out of the action, performing like a Motown oriented gospel unit complete with synchronized dance steps. It is fortunate for the production and the audience that the company has found five performers this good.
Christopher Jones is the first among equals as Pharus, partly because of his skills as an actor/singer and partly because Pharus is the most interesting character in the play. Patrick Agada is superior as Pharus’s nemesis and Julian Terrell Otis is fine as Bobby’s sidekick. Tamarus Harvell is outstanding as Pharus’s roommate, who shows enough intelligence and strength of character to rise above the sexual tensions and antagonisms that ruffle the smooth surface of school life. Darren Patin, deftly acting the most understated character in the play, rounds out the students as the young man who struggles with his grades and his new religious yearnings.
Robert Hardaway is solid as the headmaster, only in his second year in the position and trying to keep a lid on the Pharus/Bobby conflict, which could have explosive ramifications and antagonize the wealthy donors. Don Tieri is outstanding as Mr. Pendleton, who initially comes across as a white man condescending to the black characters but who turns out to be tough-minded and sympathetic.
Menendian’s direction beautifully synthesizes the music and dialogue, and draws credible and sensitive character interpretations from his ensemble. Ray Toler has designed an effective set that fluidly represents student bedrooms, a classroom, a shower room, and the school auditorium. JoAnn Montemurro designed the costumes, Diane D. Fairchild the lighting, and Sebby Woldt the sound. Breon Arzell deserves props for the choreography that so effectively complements the singing.
“Choir Boy” is a tricky play to do well. The script covers a multitude of themes that do not always blend, from homosexuality to slave history to the hothouse atmosphere of a boy’s school. Plus, the African American traditional music must be integrated naturally into the dialogue. But Menendian and his superb acting ensemble and staff of designers have searched well, making this miniature of a play both entertaining and stimulating, a revelatory window into the mind of one of our best young playwrights.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.
“Choir Boy” runs through November 12 at the Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $46 with various discounts available. Call 773 338 2177 or visit www.raventheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. October 2017
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