Choir Boy, in its first post-Broadway production and New England premier, brings the hallowed halls of the fictional Charles R. Drew Prep School, an elite academy dedicated to instilling excellence in young black men, to Speakeasy Stage Company in Boston.
Written by the screenwriter of Oscar-winning movie Moonlight Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Choir Boy’s cast consists of mostly Boston-area students and alumni, many of whom are making their Speakeasy debut. A multi-dimensional coming-of-age story and an examination of black culture and the black church, Choir Boy is both entertaining and thought provoking, raising questions about what it means to be a black man.
The show follows Pharus Young (Isaiah Reynolds), an ambitious student who seeks to take the lead at the gospel choir, which is the pride of the school and, most importantly, a draw for donors to bring in the funding the school needs. Pharus, immensely talented, was voted almost unanimously to be the head of the choir as a senior.
Despite his unquestionable genius and love for music, Pharus finds trouble holding the leadership of the choir because he is very openly gay, which the nephew of Headmaster Marrow (J. Jerome Rogers) Bobby (Malik Mitchell) takes issue with.
Struggling to find a place in his school and in his community, Pharus can be both brazenly confidently—championing his flamboyance in defiance of the expectations to how he should behave—but painfully insecure, fully aware of his otherness in a community that already feels marginalized from the greater world. Through his interactions with the other boys at the school, including his roommate and best friend Anthony (Jaimar Brown)—a straight athlete who is always supportive despite not being able to fully understand—and David (Dwayne P. Mitchell)—a reserved, struggling student who wants to be a minister—Pharus tries to figure out the balance between being himself and fitting in.
Choir Boy examines alienation and conflict within the black community, which is a thoughtful deviation from usual works that comment on race and the black experience that often place blackness in a white context.
Far from being just a play about schoolboys, Choir Boy makes very potent commentary about the black experience as a whole. Bringing up themes such as the fixation with the past, Pharus makes a poignant argument about prioritizing the present and passing down feelings and emotions that people feel in the present, rather than endlessly guessing about a past that no one in the current day has experienced.
The conflict between legacy and scholarship students comes into play, as the other students endlessly remind Bobby of his privilege—Bobbyconstantly forgets to call the headmaster by his title, usually calling him “Uncle Matt,” before correcting himself. Marrow is also caught in the conflict, both trying to ensure fairness in the school, but also pressured by his own biases toward his nephew.
Another interesting character is Mr. Pendleton (Richard Snee), a teacher coaxed out of retirement by Marrow. Pendleton is very noticeably the only white person in the cast, and he struggles to relate to the students. His good intentions cause conflict between him and his black students, who question his efforts to teach them about their own culture. Pendleton dedicated his life to civil rights, having walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but his despair highlights the distance between the races.
Choir Boy handles very grim subjects, yet the play is entertaining from beginning to end. Opening with a spirited step number, Choir Boy is filled with music and dancing, highlighting specifically black gospel music, while also venturing into slaves songs and important modern black artists like Boyz II Men.
The cast boasts impressive vocal and dancing ability, with intricate step numbers executed to perfection. The cast members did not use microphones, relying on only the raw power of their voices to project into the audience, both giving an authentic performance and showing off their incredible vocal prowess.
Although Choir Boy ends on a sad note, the cast did not let the audience leave the theater dejected. Springing a surprise onto delighted audience members, who were expecting bows, the entire cast broke into a fierce number to “Nails, Hip, Heels, Hair” by Todrick Hall, a queer, black artist who is a champion of the LGBTQ+ community, leaving the audience with a high-spirited conclusion and hopes for a future of inclusion and acceptance.
Image Courtesy of / SpeakEasy Stage Company