Chicago Theater Review: CHOIR BOY (Raven Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on October 4, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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SINGING, SURVIVING, AND SPIRIT

It’s a fine fit: As much as molding character is the goal of the imaginary Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys in Choir Boy, it’s also the purpose of Chicago’s very real Raven Theatre—where make-believe manages to matter. The characters on this stage—seen from every side—are forged in the script, transforming as they’re tested.

This one-year chronicle of a distinguished African-American institution is written by 37-year-old gay playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, the 43rd member of Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble (which produced his Head of Passes and his “Brother/Sister” trilogy), whose screenplay with Barry Jenkins won a 2016 Academy Award for Moonlight. Likewise an earnest take on a young gay man in full flux, this 2013 one-act treats its complex title character with unsparing scrutiny and hard-earned compassion. It’s also an action meditation on music—how the joy of singing, a force to cherish more than judge, can succumb to analysis and agendas.

About to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding, the prestigious (and strategically unlocated) Drew School is celebrated for its honor code and for its “a cappella” boys choir, symbols of its excellence at promoting the nurturing of strong, ethical black men since 1967. Next year’s choir leader is Pharus Jonathan Young (Christopher W. Jones), an openly gay junior who, as he belts out the gospel classic “Trust and Obey,” is convinced he’s “the best” and his future is golden. But irrepressible jeering behind the podium hints not all will go well for this brashly confident, infuriatingly clever, and omni-talented “choir boy.”

Pharus’s rival is Bobby Marrow (Patrick Agada), the potentially nepotistic nephew of Drew’s fair-minded, tough-loving headmaster (Robert D. Hardaway). Homophobically hostile to popular Pharus’s ingratiating charms, he’s also opposed to Pharus’s pure delight in the stuff they sing. Characteristically, Bobby holds that the only enduring merit of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” lies in the “coded directions” it gave its creators on how to avoid slave-catchers along the Underground Railway. Celebrating its power in the present, Pharus finds it a constant source of splendor.

The other students’ loyalties split between the boys, with Bobby supported by “follower” scholarship student Junior Davis (Julian Terrell Otis), and Pharus defended by his loyal roommate Anthony Justin “AJ” James (Tamarus Harvell), a remarkably charismatic young man. Caught between them all is future preacher David Heard (Darren Patin), a religious lad who will find it treacherous to just go with the flow.

Events come to a boil when the headmaster brings back a distinguished white teacher (Don Tieri), a respected veteran of the civil rights movement, to teach a course in thinking and eventually the choir as well. Mr. Pendleton’s efforts to prop up the teenagers with their better selves leads him to the play’s most wrenching revelation: When the headmaster confesses that he always feared that someday a gay student at Drew would be hurt, Mr. P. asks him if he ever thought the boy would also be loved.

History’s advances, especially when one minority clashes with another, require just this kind of “second mile.” At its best—because further synopsis instantly enters spoiler territory—Choir Boy unflinchingly examines the price of such progress. Thanks to Michael Menendian’s painstaking staging, these 85 minutes feel like actual turning points, choices that will resonate across the decades for these choir boys. Grounded in their all-too-human contradictions, the seven characters carry familiarity into intimacy without a stumble.

Beautifully shaped by Frederick Harris, the songs already resonate, non-negotiably conveying the processed energy of apprentice dreamers on the exciting cusp of so much future. That euphoric affirmation ultimately overcomes the Chicago premiere’s darker developments, variations in a theme of human sacrifice. Singing keeps us human.

photos by Dean La Prairie

Choir Boy
Raven Theatre Company
6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on November 12, 2017
for tickets, call 773.338.2177
or visit Raven Theatre

for more, visit Theatre in Chicago

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