Just the term “Choir Boy” brings back a certain innocent time – a purity of sound when young men united for only one reason: to raise a joyful noise. And that is what the young men here are doing Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. This is a blazer, khakis and tie kind of crowd clustered together for the actual purpose of preparing their way into the world. And all of these young men are black. How and why of the race element is never explained. It just is. Drew is an institution with values and principles that have been handed down through the generations.
The first one is that a Drew man never tells on his brother. So when Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope) is interrupted by someone whispering some fairly vile heckles as he sings the school’s song at graduation, he is not about to tell, although he is pretty certain who it is. Even Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper) cannot drag the name out of him. Pharus is playing by the rules, and the rules give him other resources. Upon returning to school in the fall Pharus, as the leader of the choir, can decide who will and will not sing. He decides that Bobby Morrow (Wallace Smith) will not be singing: this punishment, along with the assumption that Pharus DID snitch, opens up the already wide and deep gulf that separates these two boys.
The sides are established, and the school year awaits. Over the next 90 minutes or so we are treated to more plot threads than you can shake a stick at. The main story here is that Pharus is gay, and not everyone at the school appreciates this fact. The odd part here is that Pharus, while protesting greatly at this treatment, does nothing to tone down his presentation. From the moment we see him swishing up to the edge of the stage to sing, he is as flamboyant as his conservative clothing will allow.
This tightly knit and beautifully focused collection of young men travel through classes and crises together that, even when things tear them apart, pull them close to one another. Headmaster Marrow worries about his position as the newest and youngest headmaster, the boys in general, and his nephew Bobby in particular. He chooses to bring in a new instructor, the thoughtful and vague Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton), who is so dishevelled he looks like a walking bag of laundry. But this doesn’t stop him from using his noggin and creating a class to teach these boys how to think outside the box.
The enmity never goes away. And the sexual tension blows when Pharus makes a move that threatens to become public. Trip Cullman’s direction is pristine – even though it is aimed at everyone sitting in the center and often forgets the folks on the side of this thrust stage. Each of the performances are spot-on, providing just the right blend of emotion, logic and eagerness for the unknown. But we still get a little lost in the play-out of the various plots because McCraney writes wide instead of deep.
What truly does connect us – and I mean all of us – is the acapella singing of at least a dozen songs. It is the beauty and purity of these men singing this music that says, better than McCraney does himself; we have one wild ride of a history in this country. And the issues of slavery are still playing out in the details of our lives. Even in New York, where we pride ourselves on being so cozy with one another, we live in segregated neighborhoods for the most part, and the theatre is not a place to go find black people on the stage or in the audience. This fact alone is enough to rejoice at McCraney’s writing. He brings black people into the light in ways that are not expected. He not only thinks outside the box, he creates a festival outside the box. Good on him.
I am looking forward to more from Mr. McCraney as well as these fine actors.
"The plotting is diffuse and the narrative arc sketchy."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Stirring and stylishly told drama ... expertly tuned."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Doesn’t always hit the right notes. But in its best moments, ..., it soars."
Frank Scheck for New York Post
"Has the elegiac ring of autobiography."
Jeremy Gerard for Bloomberg
"Glossy production of a well-written but ultimately not so substantial drama."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"Small but mighty coming-of-age play."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...