For just about any guy, the teen years are a minefield. No longer boys but not yet men, kids go on a journey of self-discovery. And that’s a complicated trip involving, among other things, the social, emotional, intellectual and sexual aspects of identity.
In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, the guys at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys are in the thick of that tumultuous journey. We meet five students from the elite black school, all members of Drew’s beloved a capella choir. The kids have race, gender, their school and a clear love of singing in common. But their differences — so many of them — breed conflict.
Newly opened at GableStage, Choir Boy is the fourth work by the widely acclaimed, Miami-raised playwright that the company has produced. Like the students at Drew, this one is different from the three that preceded it: The Brothers Size (part of McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays trilogy), an adaptation of Hamlet and, in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and New York’s Public Theater, a set-in-Haiti Antony and Cleopatra. McCraney directed the first three, but this time, GableStage artistic director Joseph Adler has staged the show with a significant assist from music director Christina Alexander.
Choir Boy is more traditional in form than the Brother/Sister Plays, though its interwoven gospel and spiritual songs deepen the narrative. The play follows a year at Drew, from one commencement to the next, a year in which standout student Pharus Jonathan Young (Din Griffin) has become leader of the choir. Pharus is whip smart, articulate, opinionated and gay. And that combination doesn’t sit well with some of his fellow students, particularly Bobby Marrow (Melvin Cox).
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Bobby, a sullen sort who taunts Pharus when the adults are out of earshot, is the nephew of the school’s headmaster, Stephen Marrow (James Randolph). The electric undercurrents of animosity affect the other students too: Junior Davis (Vlad Dorson), Bobby’s sidekick; Anthony Justin “A.J.” James (Datus Puryear), Pharus’ athletic roommate; and David Heard (Samuel Enmund), a devout young man who aspires to divinity school even as he wrestles with demons. A second adult character, the back-from-retirement Mr. Pendleton (Peter Haig), is a white teacher with civil rights-era cred who has been brought in to coach the students in critical thinking.
The play moves from the classroom to the choir room, from the headmaster’s office to the locker room (where yes, there’s some rear-view nudity), and to the room Pharus shares with A.J., with its oh-so-different posters above each bed. Choir Boy takes on bullying, homophobia, compassion and the complexities of adolescent yearning. McCraney has lived those things, growing up gay in Liberty City as his world widened at Miami’s New World School of the Arts. His writing in Choir Boy, a blend of adolescent slang and more traditional expression the kids use in the classroom, is insightful, sometimes funny and a little bit heartbreaking.
The performances in Choir Boy, both the acting and singing, are uniformly strong.
Griffin is a charismatic Pharus, a complicated kid who refuses to dial down his inner light. Cox makes Bobby his opposite, a kid with a hair-trigger temper and a mean streak. Dorson, a sunny actor with a high speaking voice, has spot-on comic timing as Junior, and Enmund telegraphs just enough of David’s troubled spirit to make the play’s denouement unsurprising. Puryear’s A.J. is an idealized, evolved adolescent; the scene in which he trims Pharus’ hair is one of the loveliest in Choir Boy. Veteran actors Haig and Randolph bring decades of finely honed skills to the stage, and Randolph (who really is a teacher at New World) lends his powerful voice to Been in the Storm So Long near the end of the play.
The music, under Alexander’s direction, is gloriously and impeccably delivered. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is especially haunting, an expression of loneliness, yearning and hope. At Drew, music is Pharus’ sustenance and salvation. Listening to the cast of Choir Boy sing, we understand.
If you go
What: ‘Choir Boy’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Where: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (no evening show Jan. 25), through Feb. 22.
Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.