Pharus, who directs the school choir in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stirring new drama, fights an inclination towards flamboyant gestures. He has a love of music and a passion to express it. His arms take flight unconsciously: he has what the American writer James Baldwin once called “hallelujah hands”. When the headmaster at the all-black Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys asks him to control his limp-wristedness, Pharus gets defensive.
Under Trip Cullman’s smooth direction, this 90-minute evening – which has a new production at Manhattan Theatre Club after a 2012 premiere in London – finds both its jeers and its joy in the current of crackling tension running beneath the school’s surface. Bobby, the nephew of the headmaster, loathes the fact that Pharus is gay, while Pharus’s roommate, Anthony – given a marvellously nuanced performance by Grantham Coleman – is more understanding. A religious lad called David and a tentative boy called Junior round out the cast of students.
The story, which takes places over an academic year, at first seems to revolve around whether the school’s choir will be ready to perform at the school’s fundraising gala – a plot thread that peters out. The internecine struggles of the quintet erupt into an act of violent assault, and the play’s focus becomes the attempt by the headmaster, and a new instructor, acted in lively style by Austin Pendleton, to ferret out the culprit.
A high percentage of recent fiction about gay kids in American high schools revolves around violence, either self-inflicted by the shunned student or perpetrated by brutes. While this new work of McCraney, author of the highly resonant The Brother/Sister Plays, lands squarely in this tradition, it adds an element generally unexplored: the experience of young men in black private schools. In particular, Pharus, given an appealing performance by Jeremy Pope, feels like a character we’ve never seen before.
McCraney has a continually developing gift for exploring African-American traditions in a contemporary context. The chronology here can be slightly confusing. Choir Boy sometimes feels as if it were set in the past: one of the characters has a pre-mobile-phone worry that a call to his parents is running on too expensively long. Yet sometimes the play is über-up-to-date: a clever joke about Kanye West drew the biggest laugh from my audience.
When the boys break into a cappella song, any criticisms seem meaningless carping. Old spirituals like “Motherless Child” and “Rainbow Round My Shoulder” acquire new, sometimes unexpected meanings. The harmonies of Choir Boy are close, even as happiness for the boys sometimes feels far away.