Los Angeles Theater Review: CHOIR BOY (Geffen)

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by Jason Rohrer on September 27, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

SWEET SONGS UNSUPPORTED

The cast of CHOIR BOY at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Michael Lamont.Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2012 Choir Boy is a tantalizing, underdeveloped play-with-music not entirely improved by Trip Cullman’s direction, now at the Geffen a year after the production’s Manhattan Theater Club bow. Jason Michael Webb’s tasteful vocal arrangements sound terrific via Fitz Patton’s crisp sound design, but the very assurance and gravity of the “negro spirituals” overpower the playwriting. This wouldn’t be the case if these fine actors and remarkable singers had anything like this much story to tell with their acting, and if the songs were sufficiently integrated to the play. But most of the vocals are underwhelmingly staged as scene changes, and like the scenes themselves they are unsatisfyingly brief. It is a very bad sign when one wants a scene change to be longer. But the budding drama stops almost every 10 minutes for over 100, making it hard to care.

Grantham Coleman and Jeremy Pope in CHOIR BOY at the Geffen Playhouse - photo by Michael Lamont.At a boys’ preparatory academy, McCraney tosses a salad of school club politics, alma mater love, honor codes, forbidden romance, personal loyalty, sexual bigotry, and black identity infighting fifty years on from the Civil Rights Act – you could feed four plays with this many possibilities. The exemplary cast does much with the shallow exploration that a brief, one-act presentation allows these disparate themes. McCraney’s talk can be sharp, and the tongues of actors as good as Michael A. Shepperd and Jeremy Pope can cut with this dialogue. In fact all the rich character on this stage comes from the director and his actors; as written, most of the roles are underdressed mouthpieces for grievances and observations that deserve a more thorough airing. Late revelations color and illuminate some of these sketches; would that they came sooner. Rarely, songs emerge organically from the action; would that there were more such moments, even though artlessly presented, as when choir members launch into an on-the-nose application of “Motherless Child.”

Donovan Mitchell, Michael A. Shepperd, and Leonard Kelly-Young in CHOIR BOY at the Geffen Playhouse - photo by Michael Lamont.There’s a moment near the end of the play fairly typical of my issues. Two scions of a beloved institution discuss the fate of a student: an old-time white Freedom Marcher, also a teacher (an enthusiastic Leonard Kelly-Young), and a relatively new black headmaster, also a former legacy student (Sheppard). Says the Freedom Marcher: Fellows with “black eyes” weren’t allowed certain privileges in the old days, either. In fact yes, at this point in the play someone has a black eye, and has been disallowed certain privileges. But under the circumstances, the ramifications of this statement are so numerous as to make it incoherent.

  • Is he saying things haven’t gotten any better?
  • Is he saying things have gotten better?
  • Is he saying some things shouldn’t change?
  • Is he even using “black eye” as a euphemism for “embarrassing injury to one’s reputation” at all? Or is he being literal?

Donovan Mitchell and Nicholas L. Ashe in CHOIR BOY at the Geffen Playhouse - photo by Michael Lamont.

This white Freedom Marcher is also given to awkward black jokes; and all the boys we’ve seen at this school could be said to have black eyes, in that they’re all black.

  • Is the statement, then, to suggest that the school is actually, and always has been, integrated? That’s a huge revelation, if the interpretation is correct.
  • Are we to understand therefore (or regardless) that in the old days whites did the keeping down of black folk, whereas now they do it to themselves? If so, that’s a big moment.

Caleb Eberhardt, Grantham Coleman, Donovan Mitchell and Nicholas L. Ashe in Choir Boy. in CHOIR BOY at the Geffen Playhouse - photo by Michael Lamont.

Whatever it is, does the moment land? It doesn’t, partly because it’s got too many potential interpretations; partly because like most of the story points, it’s flatly directed; and partly because it’s immediately whisked offstage by yet another short burst of glorious song.

Michael A. Shepperd in CHOIR BOY at the Geffen Playhouse - photo by Michael Lamont.

photos by Michael Lamont

Caleb Eberhardt in CHOIR BOY at the Geffen Playhouse - photo by Michael Lamont.

Choir Boy
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
scheduled to end on October 26, 2014
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Paris Crayton III September 29, 2014 at 8:14 am

I couldn’t disagree with this review more. I saw the production in Atlanta and I thought it was one of the most moving and well written pieces I’ve ever seen. Tarrell McCraney is a master with words. His dialogue leaps off the page like a modern day Shakespeare. This is play has won so many well deserve awards in Atlanta and is on track to win more. I would give anything to see this show again because it changed my life and I see at least 60 shows a year.

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Kimika October 10, 2014 at 8:11 am

This was a wonderful play; it made me think about a lot of stuff and I wish I could watch it over and over again. It was so beautiful and had me in tears. BTW, my friend loved Nicholas and AJ, and thought they were cute.

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Miriam Summ October 14, 2014 at 6:22 pm

The play lacked depth. It lacked meaning. Other than Spirituals which bore no relationship to story, this was a first draft that needed to be shelved. That a headmaster in an all boy’s school discovered a homosexual romance and it’s shocking defies credibility. Victorian England. Yes. Puritan New England, circa 1650. Yes. But in today’s world, the shock is no more than incredibly stupid.

In Choir Boy, when you can’t construct a scene, let alone a coherent plot, send in a Spiritual. And when a Spiritual seems contrived and just a tad manipulative, why not take the boys, put ’em in the locker room and show the audience a cock the size of Rhode Island. Talk about a pointless, or dare I mention a gratuitous, moment where the playwright wants the audience to join in an adolescent peep show – here it is. And our hero can only stare in a moment of wonder asking that this organ of desire is “…..to be tagged and sent back into the wild.”

A poor play of little worth or merit that young Black actors with good voices could not save. Not in the schoolroom or the dorm or in even in the locker room.

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