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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Fortunately Pope is back, and so are Chuck Cooper as the well-meaning, but pragmatic Headmaster Marrow and Austin Pendleton as the delightfully whimsical white civil rights champion, Mr. Templeton same name (a special nod from the author to the actor?). And director Trip Cullman has provided Pharus with a fine group of fellow students and choristers.
McCraney's story is set in the present and the Charles R Drew Prep School for Boys where Pharus Jonathan Young is fighting for his right to lead the school's choir without having to hide his sexual identity is fictional. The school is something of an anachronism. While there was a time when close to a hundred of such prep schools were functioning; their mission to train achieving, honorable African-Americans so that they would be admitted to and fit in at top universities (elite black colleges like Howard, Morehouse and Fisk, as well as Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton). That number has dwindled down to less than half a dozen since traditionally al white private schools have embraced diversity and homosexuals, no matter what their skin color, have been let out of the gay closet. Still whether a certain behavioral restraint is needed to really fit into this now more open world, remains debatable.
If the name of the school where McCraney's play is set rings a bell, that's because he's named it for a distinguished real African American doctor whose contributions to medicine have been honored by affixing his name to a Postgraduate medical school as well as numerous public schools. This imagined modern Charles R. Drew school is thus an apt setting for the playwright to tackle the issue of lingering conformity, homophobia and bullying in an environment that should not force a young man like Pharus to turn the joy of scholarship and leading the school's chorus into a battle.
But a battle it is and though not a particularly new one it's what drives the plot from the opening scene— the graduation ceremony that also celebrates the school's 50th anniversary. The ceremony features a rendition of the school anthem, " Trust and Obey" by the Drew choir, led by Pharus, scholarship student with a golden voice as well as an excellent academic record.
The school song's title embodies the thematic conflict McCraney has his talented but troubled main character deal with: To trust and obey the school's rules of decorum or trust his own need to accept what the school has to offer without compromising his identity. . .or, as Doctor Charles R. Drew defied the Red Cross to abandon their practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood, stand up to bullies and those inclined to cater to long accepted mores and not risk full acceptance (and for the school administrator, funding cuts).
The conflict is immediately brought front and center when Pharus stops his solo rendition of the school song even though custom dictates it must never be interrupted. But Pharus is understandably distracted by the hissed insult from one of the choir boys in back of him. Though Pharus knows that the perpetrator of that offensive homophobic and racial slur is the headmaster's own nephew Bobby Marrow (a nicely nuanced J. Quinton Johnson), a Drew legacy boy whose father is a trustee. But while Pharus is defiantly unwilling to hide his flamboyant mannerisms, he's a Drew man in his commitment to the honor code about not naming names, and so the confrontatinal interchange with the headmaster quoted at the top of this review.
The action following that incendiary opening takes us into the lives of all of Pharus's class and choir mates, all with their own back stories and ambitions. While the hostile Bobby' has his supporters, like another scholarship boy Junior Davis (Nicholas L. Ashe)), tolerance is not absent— in fact, it's especially evident in some endearing scenes between Pharus and his straight roommate Anthony Justin "AJ" James (a likable John Clay III,). One scene between the boys also triggers a tense episode involving the introverted, religious David Heard (a quite touching Caleb Eberhardt).
While both Chuck Cooper and Austin Pendleton have been cast as stereotypes, they are needed to propel the play forward and both Cooper and Pendleton are actors who can make even stereotypes feel fresh. The classroom scenes that follow the headmaster's enlistment of the distinguished Mr. Pendelton to steer the divided teens to their better selves during his course on critical thinking are both stirring and entertaining — stirring as exemplified by a long monologue by Pharus about how his grandmother told him how Negro spirituals freed the slaves not physically but spiritually. . . entertaining as highlighted by the execution of the assignment to bring in a song which in David's case turns out to be a show-biz style quartet in lame jackets.
The most remarkable and original aspect of Choir Boy is of course the actual a capella singing by the chorus which punctuates each scene. These musical interludes are heightened by expanding the chorus to include the understudies. It's too bad that Chuck Cooper, never gets to show off his splendid big belting voice never gets to in as he apparently was allowed to do in the original off-Broadway prouction. At any rate a big bravo is owed to musical director and vocal arranger Jason Michael Webb. The lively singing is enhanced by the vivid accompanying movements. (Credit here belongs to Camille A. Brown).
David Zinn has more room to create the various locations in the school but he's not over staged it. Zinn also designed the boys' very authentic school blazers.
To sum up, yes Choir Boy is another in a long list of boarding school plays and movies.But McCraney outstanding writing skills and the clever use of that chorus make Choir Boy a most welcome and original addition to Broadway.
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Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Trip Cullman Cast (alphabetical order): Nicholas L. Ashe (Junior Blake), John Clay III (Anthony Justin "AJ" James), Caleb Eberhardt (David Heard), Chuck Cooper (Headmaster Marrow), Caleb Eberhardt (David Heard), J. Quinton Johnson (Bobby Marrow), Austin Pendleton (Mr. Pendleton) Jeremy Pope (Pharus Jonathan Young); Marcus Gladney and J. Quinton Johnson (Ensemble).
David Zinn: Scenic & costume design
Peter Kaczorowski: Lighting design
Fitz Patton: Ssound design
Cookie Jordan: Mmake-up design
Jason Michael Webb: Music direction & vocal arrangements
Thomas Schall:Fight director
Camille A. Brown:Movement. Stage Manager: Narda E. Alcorn
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission
MTC at Samuel J. Friedman
From 12/11/18; opening 1/08/19; closing 2/17/19-- extended to 2/24..
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/05/19 press preview Cast: Chuck Cooper (Headmaster Marrow), Austin Pendleton (Mr. Pendleton), Jeremy Pope (Pharus Jonathan Young), Nicholas L. Ashe (Junior Blake), Daniel Bellomy (Ensemble), Jonathan Burke (Ensemble), Gerald Caesar (Ensemble), John Clay III (Anthony Justin "AJ” James), Caleb Eberhardt (David Heard), Marcus Gladney (Ensemble) and J. Quinton Johnson (Bobby Marrow).
Scenic and costumedesign: David Zinn
Lighting design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound design: Fitz Patton
Make-up design:Cookie Jordan Music direction and vocal arrangements: Jason Michael Webb
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Movement: Camille A. Brown
Stage Manager: Narda E. Alcorn
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission
MTC at Samuel J. Friedman
From 12/11/18; opening 1/10/19; closing 2/17/19.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/08/19 press preview
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