CHARACTER. ACHIEVEMENT. INTEGRITY. TRUTH. EXCELLENCE. HONOR.
Looming above the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys — an all-Black, all-male school contained within downtown’s A Contemporary Theatre — these words demonstrate what is expected of the boys followed in “Choir Boy,” written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Jamil Jude. The audience is welcomed warmly to a graduation ceremony, as Headmaster Marrow (Arlando Smith) smiles on. This is a time of tradition, anticipation and relief.
It’s wonderfully on the nose that junior student Pharus Jonathan Young (Nicholas Japaul Bernard), a student living with the pressure of how his sexuality is perceived, becomes the center of a broken tradition when he takes an unplanned pause in the song he leads for the ceremony. Thus begins the unraveling, as multiple notes of adversity within the student body are raised; students like Pharus and David (Brandon G. Stalling) attend Drew thanks to scholarships, while others, such as Bobby Marrow (Jarron A. Williams), attend for free on legacy status. The students struggle together in their classes and apart in discussion with their families, and come together to clash and reflect at extracurricular choir meetings.
As Pharus, the choir lead and lead of the show, Bernard glides. Pharus is outspoken, proud and opinionated, making for a very text-heavy character who has a complex weight to carry within the spectacle of his story. As the choir lead for his senior year, Pharus brings with him the baggage of repression beneath the celebration and exuberance of leadership. In comparison to the other boys, he has had to grow up both sooner and faster. Bernard fulfills this responsibility with grace and incredible tact, not only keeping audiences keyed into the nuances of his words but also forming avenues of clarity through his use of intonation and pensive pause that match in narrative strength with the text.
The schoolboy ensemble’s spectrum of masculinity shifts throughout “Choir Boy,” with the young men transforming from slouching in class to improvising duets to performing as the tableau of singers at commencement. Pharus and Bobby are often bookends on the range of immaturity to early manhood, begging the questions of audiences: Where do we allow Black boyhood? Where do we celebrate it? In the director’s note in the “Choir Boy” program, Jude puts this to audiences as, “Where is it safe to be a Black child?”
With possible answers to these questions, in come characters like Headmaster Marrow, who walks the line of fostering the individual and holding up the standards of the collective, and Mr. Pendleton (Larry Paulsen), a white teacher who interacts with the students’ and audience’s biases as he mentors the boys in creative thinking.
It is difficult to discuss “Choir Boy” without spoiling the moments of awe contained in the set, which intertwines with the plot under the supervision of scenic designer Tony Cisek. The hexagonal set itself appears like an arena, three ramps leading in from tunnel entryways. Institutional wooden benches function as chairs, beds and percussive additions to the musical score, which is performed entirely a cappella in the gorgeous style of gospel spirituals.
“Choir Boy” premiered in 2012 in a cooperative effort between The English Stage Company and Manhattan Theatre Club, after a 2007-08 commission from the latter. Ten years later, this production of “Choir Boy” is being presented in Seattle by ACT and the 5th Avenue Theatre as part of a joint venture to front smaller musicals. “Choir Boy” hopefully begins a trend of producing non-traditional musicals — that is, musicals that exit the norm of out-of-world songs or sung dialogue.
Early on, the use of a cappella music in “Choir Boy” feels novel, but it quickly becomes immersive and locked into the story; for the boys, singing is another language when the pressure to become men grows too paramount for spoken word. The songs are as easily understood as an active, living, impactful part of their lives as they are a musical highlight of a performance. At times, it feels easy to discount “Choir Boy” from the definition of a “musical” — it’s hard to imagine a standalone soundtrack being released, for instance. But the music is inextricable from the story. “Choir Boy” is a piece of musical theater that challenges us to accept the reality of song in our lives and its impact on our communities and decisions.
At first, it was difficult to interpret when “Choir Boy” takes place. The standard Drew uniforms create a cohesion that unites the characters but sets them apart from a specific decade. It took some contextual and design detail — such as one character’s Nikes, another’s earbuds and the age of a character’s mother in reference to the music she liked — to realize that the play was placed in the last decade and a half, perhaps within President Barack Obama’s first term. On the surface level, this exclusion of explicit detail is frustrating and leaves questions around the sociopolitical context of the play. But it creates productive reflection: Which years matter more when discussing Black boyhood? Was I, a non-Black audience member, intrinsically leaving issues in the past that are still present today? It became clear that “Choir Boy” would be just as necessary if it were set in the present as in the recent past. Discussing Black boyhood and understanding spaces of intentional boyhood is necessary yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Moreover, the question of where queerness is allowed permeates the Seattle theater scene as the summer wraps. Theatre22’s “Nonsense and Beauty” (by Scott C. Sickles, dir. Corey McDaniel) captures queerness in the highly repressed form fashioned by the past, following author E.M. Forster (Eric Mulholland) throughout a lifetime spent tangential to his lover. Through interwoven loves and losses, “Nonsense and Beauty” challenges the audience to confront the queerness of histories that have been swept clean of the very subject.
Seeing both “Nonsense and Beauty” and “Choir Boy” evokes a rich thread of queerness throughout time that may be sobering, welcoming or both. With a growing and active queer theater community in Seattle, the successes of “Nonsense and Beauty,” “Choir Boy” and many others may foster a future of plays that challenge medium and bias.
W. Barnett Marcus is an actor and playwright living in Seattle who can be found on Twitter @waldenbarnett.
“Choir Boy” runs through Oct. 23 in the Allen Theatre at ACT. Tickets run $5 for students who use Teentix and up to $59. Use promo code COMMUNITY for 25% off. “Nonsense and Beauty” runs through Oct. 2 at the Seattle Public Theater; tickets run $10 to $50.
Read more of the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2022 issue.