By Karen Isaacs
Tarrell Alvin McCraney, the playwright in residence in what is now called the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale (a mouthful to be sure), is the author of the current production at the Rep; Choir Boy through Saturday, April 23.
It is both a compelling drama and, in many ways, a predictable one. It is set in an elite prep school for African American boys which is known for its choir that sings at many school events. The headmaster has selected Pharus Jonathan Young to lead the choir in his senior year.
But we know there will be trouble. While singing at the graduation ceremony as a junior, he is taunted with gay slurs by another choir member, who just happens to be a “legacy” admission.
The play follows the senior year as the conflict between Pharus and Bobby (his taunter) escalates and involves others.
While the play holds your attention, it too often takes the easy way out in terms of plot. For some characters, the headmaster for example, it is difficult to understand the twists and turns of their actions. And for others, it is difficult to understand why they are in the play at all, except to solve a plot problem.
That isn’t to say that you won’t find interesting things in the work.
Pharus is a complex character – he is effeminate to an extreme and has the arrogance of youth who know they are really good (he’s a terrific singer) and smart. At times, you see him creating his own problems. While in the production, he is not physically large, he does not shy away from standing his ground both in debates and other situations. Israel Erron Ford follows through by giving Pharus almost a caricature of how an effeminate homosexual behaves.
The other actors playing students are good, but for most of them it requires a big stretch to accept them as 18 year olds. This is particularly true of Pharus’ roommate, played by Malik James and his tormentor, Bobby played by Anthony Holiday. They make a valiant effort but it just doesn’t work. That isn’t to say that performers don’t a good job presenting a depth of character, particularly Holiday, that helps you change your reactions to them. Holiday lets us see some of the things below the surface in Bobby’s background that leads him to his behaviors. Yet he seems less a “gansta” – which he inspires to – and more just a playground bully.
I saw this production on opening night; unfortunately at Yale students from the drama school pack the house on opening night to cheer on fellow classmates who are in the cast. Their reactions are often loud and sometimes based more on their joy at seeing the classmate in an unexpected role than the actual play. This was certainly the case with uproarious laughter, that for me, drowned out the lines that might actually have been funny if I could have heard them.
In addition, articulation was missing, so that lines seemed muddled. It is one thing to suggest an accent or way of speaking, but when it interferes with audience comprehension, it is a problem.
The play, as presented by director Christopher D. Betts begin as an over-the-top comedy and ends as drama. It seems as if the transition was too extreme and too quick. In addition, Betts has to be responsible for the extreme over-the-top behaviors of Pharus. At times, the stereotype was so exaggerated as to be borderline (or perhaps over the border) offensive.
Allen Gilmore does what he can with the dichotomies in the role of the headmaster. Walton Wilson has little to work with as Mr. Pendelton, the dotty old teacher who is brought back to teach a course in thinking. He role seems more a joke than serving an important part in the plot.
As usual, the production values of the show are excellent with scenic design by Anna Grigo, lighting by Riva Fairhall and Sound by Daniella Hart and Uptown Works.
Special recognition must be given to musical director and vocal arranger Allen René Louis and choreographer Amy Hall Garner.
Audiences should know that there is so brief nudity in the show, though not frontal nudity.
Choir Boy is worth seeing, if only for the fine singing and choreography.
For tickets, visit YaleRep.org.