It is a risky thing to make this claim in the first month of the year. But if you see one show at Studio Theatre in 2015, let it be Choir Boy.
Tarrell Alvin McCraney, the wunderkind playwright who studied under August Wilson, is no stranger to Studio’s stage. The plays of his Brother/Sister Trilogy enjoyed lengthy runs at Studio in the years between 2007 and 2011. Yet while I could appreciate the writer’s deft navigation of myth and theme, I didn’t leave those performances transported. McCraney’s Choir Boy remains consistent with these earlier explorations of identity and self-preservation in the face of hardship, yet this powerhouse of a show is the type of journey that reverberates long after you leave the theatre.
It opens with prodigious young singer Pharus Jonathan Young (Jelani Alladin) delivering the alma mater at the commencement activities of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. We are the guests, listening to the eager trill of his voice, until we hear it. Slurs from offstage. Bad ones. And Pharus stops singing.
That moment, that initial staged moment, serves as a microcosm for everything that follows. The play’s complexity, its willingness to disturb, and its juxtaposition of the vulgar and the beautiful is what makes it all so achingly real. Moments of love tempered by fear, moments of anger reeled back by kindness, moments of redemption shattered by loneliness. Think back to high school and try to isolate one moment or feeling that wasn’t intertwined with another. The muddle, the heartache, and the poignancy all come together to trace not just Pharus’s journey, but the journey of all the students at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys.
Pharus, the gifted junior who sung at commencement, is gay. In a school full of other black boys–and administrators–this is not an easy thing, and though he is confident in himself and his talents, others continue to try to “straighten him out.” Alladin’s performance in this role is heartfelt and captivating, his earnestness as pure and poignant as his singing as he searches for a place of acceptance.
Yet his colleagues at school are also struggling to find their place. There’s the brutish Bobby (Keith Antone), who leans on attitude and family ties to the school to mask his insecurities. His sidekick Junior (Eric Lockley) whose lackluster smarts and tiny stature keep him at Bobby’s side for protection. David (Jonathan Burke) is a devout student and aspiring man of the cloth, but he’s keeping secrets behind his godly manners. And then there’s AJ (Jaysen Wright), Pharus’s roommate and a star ball-player for the school, who reveals himself to be the truest and kindest of them all–though it comes at a cost.
Choir Boy is nothing short of kaleidoscopic. Under the direction of Kent Gash, the ensemble offers performances that are in turns vulnerable, gritty, potent, and honest. In a year where so many discussions have centered on stereotype and race and wrongful assumption, Choir Boy’s characters defy audiences to pin any of them to a type.
Closes March 1
The Studio Theatre
501 14th St. NW
Tickets: $20 – $88
1 hour, 33 minutes
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202-332-3300
Part of the show’s power stems from its rawness, and so yes, audiences should brace for some foul language, violence, and nudity. But to be caught up in those elements is to miss the point. Nothing here is gratuitous. Indeed, the music — a capella songs woven seamlessly throughout the narrative — is another expression of rawness, granting each character the opportunity to share a part of himself not otherwise seen. It is, in its way, a love letter to the act of performance.
Choir Boy is a reminder of the intrinsic potency of theatre. It parts our lips into smiles, it shatters our hearts to dust, and begs us to look more closely at our fellow man. This daring play should be required theatregoing for anyone who believes in the transformative power of the stage.
Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney . Directed by Kent Gash . Featuring Marty Austin Lamar, Jelani Alladin, Alan Wade, Eric Lockley, Jaysen Wright, Keith Antone and Joshua E. Nelson . Music Direction: Darius Smith . Set design: Jason Sherwood . Lighting design: Dawn Chian . Costume design: Kathleed Geldard . Sound design: Kenny Neal . Dramaturn: Lauren Halvorsen . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.