Review: CHOIR BOY at ACT Theatre

Another must see, stunning piece of art from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.

By: Sep. 22, 2022
Review: CHOIR BOY at ACT Theatre
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Review: CHOIR BOY at ACT Theatre
Jarron A. Williams, Donovan Mahannah, Kyle Ward,
Nicholas Japaul Bernard, and Brandon G. Stalling
in Choir Boy at ACT Theatre.
Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

Dear Readers, I'm going to set the "Way Back Machine" to 2011 where I was first introduced to the works of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney as the Seattle Rep had produced his stunning "The Brothers Size", a show that hit me so hard in the gut that I think about it to this day. And while I was still reeling from it in 2012, he presented his astounding "Choir Boy" at The Royal Court Theatre in London. Eventually it made its way to Broadway in 2019 to a huge outpouring of critical acclaim. Sadly, I missed that run but then ACT announced they would be bringing it to Seattle ... in 2020. Yup, you guessed it. It didn't happen then thanks to the pandemic. But now, thanks to the theatre gods, ACT, in conjunction with the 5th Avenue Theatre, have made good on their promise of presenting this amazing work and let me tell you, it was worth the wait.

This time he focuses on the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys that has been dedicated to the education of strong, ethical Black men. Once such man is Pharus (Nicholas Japaul Bernard), a young man whose chief goal is to lead the choir at Drew. This would seem to be a no-brainer with his stellar voice and innovative ideas for the choir. However, Pharus is a young black gay man in an all-male black institution and while the majority say they have no issue with him publicly, the undercurrent of disapproval looms large until one vocal fellow student, Bobby (Jarron A. Williams) hurls some racial and homophobic slurs at a school assembly and that sets off a powder keg of events that leads this young man and others to question their place in the school and society and what it means to be an outwardly proud, upstanding man, while staying true to yourself.

First off, let me say, this play is not what you think. Like most of McCraney's works, there are layers upon layers of storytelling. Not the least of which is his use of the stunning choral work and Gospel songs infused throughout the story as well as some powerful choreography that accompanies the songs. I must give huge kudos to the music director Jada Cato, the vocal arranger Jason Michael Webb, and the choreographer Juel D. Lane, and of course director Jamil Jude, for crafting such a vibrant and soul enriching world that perfectly complimented McCraney's beautiful play. The writing, the music and staging, not to mention the gorgeous lighting by Andrew Smith, transcend this show from storytelling to (and I said it before when I reviewed McCraney's other piece that came through town) art.

Review: CHOIR BOY at ACT Theatre
Kyle Ward and Nicholas Japaul Bernard
in Choir Boy at ACT Theatre.
Photo credit: Tracy Martin

But none of this would be possible without this superb cast. We have to start with these young men, Nicholas Japaul Bernard, Jarron A. Williams, Donovan Mahannah, Kyle Ward, and Brandon G. Stalling. Each and every one has superb voices that rang through the Allen theater, filling up every inch of the space. The power and the harmonies of their voices knew no bounds and the emotion conveyed in their songs was only matched by their stirring acting performances. Bernard blew me away with is confidence and presence and turned what could have been a stereotype into a complex human and lead the show with a sublime ease and grace. I've been impressed by him in many other turns in Seattle but this one could be his best ... until the next one. And speaking of complexity, Williams takes the bullying Bobby and gives him a rich backstory that almost makes you empathize. Stalling brings in the devout David with a painfully conflicted soul, giving us a raw and vulnerable performance that I won't soon forget. Ward, as Pharus' roommate AJ, manages a portrayal of a sweet, endearing and loyal young man that the world needs more of, and you can't help but fall for him. And Mahannah as Junior may have the smaller of the roles, but he made the absolute most of every moment he had on stage, whether bringing in some tension relieving comic relief, to his own stunning vocals, to his turning the mopping of water off the stage into a solo show of its own.

But lest I forget the grownups at the school, we must recognize Arlando Smith as the beleaguered Headmaster whose voice and presence commanded each moment and introduced us to the world we had stumbled into beautifully. And Larry Paulsen as the lone white professor at the school who too had such a rich and layered character that even as you think you have him figured out, you realize how much more, and integral to the story, he is.

McCraney continues to show himself as one of the best writers around today (just look at his Academy Award winning screenplay for "Moonlight") and "Choir Boy" is certainly no exception. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give "Choir Boy" a "shouldn't be surprised as to how blown away I was" WOW. Put simply, this is a play that demands to be seen, deserves to be seen, and must be seen. Like "The Brothers Size" this is another one that will stay with me for years.

"Choir Boy" from ACT Theatre and the 5th Avenue Theatre performs at ACT Theatre through October 23rd. For tickets or information visit them online at www.acttheatre.org.




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