Regional Reviews: Boston
Nominated for four 2019 Tony Awards, including Best Play, Choir Boy stands out for McCraney's deft script and the depth of his characterizations, for its multi-faceted view of black masculinity, and the organic blending of music and dance into the play. It is not a musical, but it sure feels like one, especially with the rousing opening step number, the first of many terrific dance elements choreographed by Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White. Also, as its title implies, the students participate in the choir at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, and sing a mix of nine or ten gospel, spiritual, and R&B songs that illustrate moments in the story and feature incredible harmonies (music director David Freeman Coleman).
Choir Boy is a coming-of-age story that takes an apparently homogeneous group, the uniformed members of the esteemed choir, and then zooms in on five of them to show their differences, their struggles, their insecurities, and how they negotiate the trials of growing up in their environment. Pharus Young (Isaiah Reynolds), the choir leader, must balance his talent and ambition against his unease with the response of others to his sexuality. His roommate AJ (Jaimar Brown) is an athlete who moves easily in the world and shows compassion for Pharus' situation. Bobby (Malik Mitchell) is a bully who thinks being the nephew of the headmaster gives him privilege, Junior (Aaron Patterson) tags along with Bobby until the stakes are raised, and David (Dwayne P. Mitchell) is a scholarship student who needs to toe the mark and wants to be a pastor.
Reynolds is especially charismatic, with a glorious tenor voice, showing Pharus' sassy streak and ability to genuinely connect with everyone, be they friend or foe. He and Brown have a sweet chemistry together, as opposed to his credibly vitriolic relationship with Malik Mitchell as Bobby. Dwayne P. Mitchell has a mysterious air of discomfort permeating his character, and Patterson's Junior is easygoing and relatable. Antione Gray, Thomas Purvis, and Nigel Richards contribute their singing and dancing talents playing additional members of the choir. The adults in the room are J. Jerome Rogers as Headmaster Marrow, masking his frustrations beneath his strength of character, and Richard Snee as Mr. Pendleton, a former teacher who volunteers his time and experience to help develop the ability of the young men to think outside the box. He's a little bumbling, but a good guy (think Joe Biden) who is disturbed by some of the nastiness expressed in the choir room.
The set by Baron E. Pugh is simple, with a large cross emblazoned on the upstage wall, and a few bookcases that slide into position to represent different rooms. The actors move beds, benches and lockers on and off as needed. Oliver Wason's lighting design effectively changes from scene to scene, costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt dresses the students uniformly in crimson blazers and khaki pants, and designer Darby Smotherman fills in appropriate school sounds. Ted Hewlett does double duty as fight and intimacy choreographer, allowing both aspects to appear realistic.
McCraney draws on his own experiences growing up black and gay to provide the audience with an inside view of African-American culture. Music and dance give additional layers that touch on spiritual, political, and personal influences in the lives of these characters. Many of the themes in Choir Boy are universal, evoking memories of high school, friendships, exploring sexuality, and finding one's place in the world. However, Parent and the remarkable cast shape the play to tell it like it is for them and the young men of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys.
Choir Boy has been extended through October 19, 2019, at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston MA. For tickets and information, call the box office at 617-933-8600 or visit www.SpeakEasyStage.com.
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Music Direction by David Freeman Coleman, Choreography by Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White; Scenic Design, Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design, Oliver Wason; Sound Design, Darby Smotherman; Fight & Intimacy Choreography, Ted Hewlett; Production Stage Manager, Phyllis Y. Smith; Assistant Stage Manager, Michael Cowie
Cast (in alphabetical order): Jaimar Brown, Antione Gray, Dwayne P. Mitchell, Malik Mitchell, Aaron Patterson, Thomas Purvis, Isaiah Reynolds, Nigel Richards, J. Jerome Rogers, Richard Snee