After the success Pillsbury House Theatre and the Mount Curve Company had in producing Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister Plays, it wouldn't be long before other theaters tackled works by this emerging voice of African-American theater.
Now the Guthrie Theater presents McCraney's Choir Boy, where the swampy heat of the Louisiana bayou is replaced by the rarified air of the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys.[jump]
This time out, McCraney puts too much on his plate, trying to squeeze the experience of attending an all-male boarding school, class divisions in the black community, and adolescent sexual awakening into a 90-minute package.
The Drew choir is legendary, and being the leader is a top honor. Pharus is tapped to take on this role his senior year, but he isn't necessarily a popular choice. The boy is stereotypically gay as he minces about with limp wrists and swishy hips.
That comes out at the previous year's commencement. When Pharus sings the school song, classmate Bobby calls him a faggot.
This makes for a rough senior year. The tension ripens after Bobby is kicked out of the choir, and the headmaster brings in a white teacher to foster unity within the group.
It turns out the antagonism between Pharus and Bobby is about more than homophobia. Pharus is socially awkward. His attempts to fit in often fall flat. When he tries to joke about Bobby's mother it almost leads to a fist fight, since Mom has recently passed away.
John-Michael Lyles and Darrick Mosley are the core of Choir Boy. Lyles gives Pharus multiple faces, from the confident soul on stage to the confused boy confessing his doubts to his roommate. Mosley's Bobby starts off as a garden-variety bully. But under a deep layer of bravado is just as much confusion, mixed with a great deal of anger.
Choir Boy is best when it sticks to a tale of boys trying to make sense of their hormones, desires, expectations, and fears. McCraney loses his way when he tries to reach out into other areas of their experiences. It's not that a discussion about the origins and meanings of Negro spirituals (were they coded to help escaped slaves find their way to freedom?) isn't interesting. But it would be a lot more fun if it were a real discussion, rather than scripted debate.
These digressions never derail the play, in part due to Peter Rothstein's taut direction and even more so to the performances of the five young actors at the center of the story, whose gorgeous voices blend on spirituals and gospel tunes.
Whether it is harmonizing on "Eyes on the Prize" or talking about sex in the locker room, they make Choir Boy feel real.