BWW Interview: Chuck Cooper Preaches to the CHOIR BOY
CHOIR BOY is back, and Chuck Cooper couldn't be happier.
"I love it when there's a good story to tell and this is that," said Cooper, a veteran actor and Tony Award winner who plays an empathetic school administrator and role model to the students in Tarell Alvin McCraney's provocative and passionate play.
The drama is laced with exuberant singing and dancing. A gay black teen struggles with fellow choir members at a posh prep school. It's not such a protected sanctuary from society's judgments and pronouncements when it comes to an outlier.
CHOIR BOY debuted off-Broadway in 2013 and has gone through many significant changes.
"Pharus, like the other students, is full of contradictions, said Cooper, who plays Headmaster Marrow.
"I have a lot of respect for Tarell and Jeremy and the whole company pulling everything together," Cooper added.
"We did it five years ago, so I was familiar with that version," Cooper said. "There were substantial changes made and everything is flushed out now. The music is flushed out, there's added choreography and chorus personnel so the vocal work is richer. Nice way to make a debut," Cooper said with a laugh.
Headmaster Marrow is a principled man who genuinely cares for his charges, perhaps favoring his nephew Bobby, who is a student there. Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson) is a linchpin in the layered tale and provokes Pharus during a particularly moving choral moment.
The consequences are both devastating and liberating.
"Bobby is a knucklehead," Cooper said with a laugh. "My nephew is a hot and a hard head and really tries my patience as young men will do. His father is not the most advanced human being on the planet. Bobby is kind of crippled."
Cooper has found his participation in such a ground-breaking vehicle to be challenging and sobering.
"The challenge for me is to try to bring the words off the page into a world," Cooper said. "If I were to pick a scene that was the most challenging, it would be the last scene I have with Jeremy. He shares some intimacies, and I experience a great deal of empathy.
"That's when the contradictions of the institution and character come into focus. As an administrator, I need to find out what happened, regardless of what I personally feel about the young man," Cooper mentioned. "There was violence and sex and somebody probably had to be punished.
Homosexuality and perceptions of masculinity are threaded through the tale.
"Pharus is a person more or less comfortable or courageous about being himself," Cooper posited. David, another student, is in the closet and hiding, "trying to cover up who he is with religion," he said. "Because he is closeted, that creates a tension that unfortunately explodes in violence."
Humor, surprisingly, also runs through the play. "Humor is a balm for a lot of pain," Cooper said.
Cooper shares traits with Headmaster Marrow.
"He has a wry sense of humor and I have a wry sense of humor," he said. "Headmaster has a mission to some degree. What he does is, to some degree, a calling for him. I feel the same way about theater."
The Cleveland native, who won the Tony for his performance in Cy Coleman's THE LIFE, wasn't born in the theater, but he was raised in one. "My mother and father participated in a community theater and I even went to nursery school there," he added.
When he attended Ohio University, he met a theater professor during freshman orientation. "I always wanted to do something fun and this teacher told me to try the freshman theater tract.
"And the rest is history," he laughed. "I am in an amazingly lucky position and before each show I give thanks to my ancestors and those who paved the way.
"To make my living doing what I love is a blessing. I don't dig ditches, I don't live in Syria and I'm very grateful to be where I am."
CHOIR BOY will resonate especially with young gay men, Cooper said. "They experience it on a deep level. So many people tell me they experience that otherness. They feel like social pariahs and alienated from society.
"We're having the same damn conversation because human beings are slow to evolve and we don't use our brains to take care of ourselves," Cooper said.
"America is only 200 years old, barely an adolescent country in the world view," he said. "The hopeful thing in today's world is that often things are darkest before the dawn and the path forward is never a straight or consistent one."
Choir Boy is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. It's directed by Trip Cullman, with lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, original music and sound by Fitz Patton, fight direction by Thomas Schall, choreography by Camille A. Brown and original music, arrangements and music direction by Jason Michael Webb.