BWW Review: CHOIR BOY IS PITCH PERFECT at SpeakEasy Stage In Boston
Just as the centuries-old spirituals sung by American slaves created community and gave voice to the thoughts and emotions they were forced to repress, so too the music in CHOIR BOY serves to give hope and healing to the young men struggling to find and express their true identities at a boarding school designed to shape them into society's culturally approved version of "strong, ethical black men." As classroom students, they must live up to the high standards set by the Headmaster and a strict 50-year honor code. As members of the school's acclaimed choir, they are set free when they sing. And when they do, it is with a vengeance. In glorious multi-part harmony, all of their talents, ambitions, and roiling anguish are powerfully unleashed.
CHOIR BOY is the Tony-nominated play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Oscar-winning screenwriter for Moonlight) making its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston. Extended an extra week now through October 19, the play pits the not-so-closeted gay choir leader Pharus (an uninhibited Isaiah Reynolds) against the conventions of black male machismo that infiltrate popular music, athletics, religion, and even the neighborhood barbershop. When Pharus' sexuality becomes blatant and can no longer be shrugged off by the Headmaster and his fellow choir members, everyone is challenged to face his own acceptance and definition of manhood. No one leaves the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys completely unscathed, but they do leave changed for good.
SpeakEasy's CHOIR BOY is rich with talent, directed with great agility by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Book scenes combine the everyday pressures of academic achievement with the personal angst and isolation that all of the students feel while on their journeys from boys to men. Choral numbers give voice to their underlying passions, often exploding into gospel, hip-hop, spiritual and R&B. The remarkable choreography by Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White punctuates the singing with insistent percussion, executed by the ensemble with a violent precision that amplifies each boy's underlying frustrations. Sometimes an angry cacophony, other times a heartbreaking prayer, the singing and dancing provide essential escape routes for the eight choir boys - escape from their own personal insecurities and from externally applied oppressive norms.
Reynolds is a standout as the sassy Pharus. He could easily rely on exaggerated behavior tropes for quick (and empty) laughs, but he takes his performance so much further. His flamboyance has a razor-sharp edge to it, suggesting the pain his quick wit defends. His desire to make his mother proud practically bursts at the seams and drives him almost singlemindedly to be the best - even at the cost of alienating his few friends.
As Pharus' roommate, AJ, Jaimar Brown is tremendously sympathetic. An athlete with a build that Pharus openly admires, he squirms under Reynolds' adoring gaze. However, he is so assured in his own heterosexuality that he forges a truly open and honest friendship with Pharus. Their scenes together are at once funny and tender. Brown's ability to balance AJ's masculinity with an easy understanding creates some of the most endearing moments of the evening.
Dwayne P. Mitchell as the aspiring minister David seems merely shy at first, but as classroom debates raise questions about his beliefs, his shyness morphs into visible discomfort. His inner turmoil reaches a crescendo after a harrowing confrontation, and Mitchell carries David's pain like a 200-lb weight around his neck. When he seeks counsel from the white former Headmaster Mr. Pendleton (a slightly dithering but enthusiastic Richard Snee), who has returned to Drew to lead the choir in discussions about the place of spirituals in black history, it appears to be the first step David takes in discovering his true self.
Malik Mitchell is the "bad boy" Bobby, the legacy student whose uncle is the school's harried Headmaster (J. Jerome Rogers). Feeling singled out unfairly by his uncle for transgressions that usually involve bullying Pharus, Mitchell nevertheless manages to suggest deeper longing, loss, and intelligence beneath his belligerent surface. Aaron Patterson is Bobby's easy-going sidekick Junior, a fun-loving prankster who usually sees both sides of an argument.
One of the most potent musical numbers in a score full of righteous spirituals is "Motherless Chile," a plaintive cry from David, Bobby, Junior and Pharus to be seen, heard, and understood by the mothers who have sent them away from home in order to give them the best educational opportunities possible. The principals, later joined by the other boys in the ensemble, build what starts out as quiet despair into raging pleas for love and connection. With each inspired song in CHOIR BOY, we gain a deeper and more heartfelt compassion for these dedicated and hard-working young men.
As the title suggests, students at Drew are expected to behave like proverbial choir boys. It is a clever irony, then, that their bottled-up emotions are expressed so vibrantly when they sing. These boys may not be angels, but through their glorious music, they forever take flight.
(Photos courtesy of SpeakEasy Stage Company)
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney; directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent; music direction, David Freeman Coleman; choreography, Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White; scenic design, Baron E. Pugh; costume design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; lighting design, Oliver Wason; sound design, Darby Smotherman; fight and intimacy choreography, Ted Hewlett; production stage manager, Phyllis Y. Smith; assistant stage manager, Michaila Cowie
Cast in Alphabetical Order:
Anthony Justin "AJ" James, Jaimar Brown; Kamary, Antione Gray; David Heard, Dwayne P. Mitchell; Bobby Marrow, Mallik Mitchell; Junior Davis, Aaron Patterson; Adrian, Thomas Purvis; Pharus Jonathan Young, Isaiah Reynolds; Daniel, Nigel Richards; Headmaster Marrow, J. Jerome Rogers; Mr. Pendleton, Richard Snee
Performances and Tickets:
Now extended through October 19, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; tickets start at $25 and are available at the Box Office, online at www.SpeakEasyStage.com or by calling BostonTheatreScene Ticketing Services at 617-933-8600.