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Singing to the Choir: In-Choiring Minds Want to Know

Ed Rampell: Choir Boy’s setting -- Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys -- is, for this reviewer, the most interesting, unique aspect of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s gay-themed drama.
Choir Boy

CHOIR BOY Theater Review

[dc]C[/dc]hoir Boy’s setting -- Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys -- is, for this reviewer, the most interesting, unique aspect of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s gay-themed drama. Historically-Black educational institutions have, on occasion, been featured in productions, such as Denzel Washington’s superb 2007 movie The Great Debaters. But for your Caucasian critic this milieu is relatively untraveled terrain and of keen interest, especially as his father taught in Boys High High School, an all-Black and Latino facility in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

But Drew is very different from Boys High, a public school that’s part of the New York City school system. In addition to being private, Drew is also a religious school. So, just as, say, New York is a character in Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan, Drew’s ambiance hovers over Choir Boy -- although institutionally, not so much geographically.

The title character is Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope), who aspires to becoming the prestigious choir master of Drew, which seems largely dependent for its economic survival on an annual fundraiser featuring the all male singers. Pharus must chart a tricky, precarious path as a gay youth completely surrounded by boys and men (alas, no female characters trod the boards in this play). This includes not only in the classroom, but in his dormitory in general, dorm room in particular, locker room and showers. Scenic designer David Zinn’s understated sets go with the flow, morphing from one scene to another depending upon their location requirements.

Choir Boy

Caleb Eberhardt, Grantham Coleman, Donovan Mitchell and Nicholas L. Ashe in Choir Boy. Photo by Michael Lamont.

The play focuses on five young men attending the school, Headmaster Marrow (Michael Shepperd) and Mr. Pendleton (Leonard Kelly-Young has the role which was played by Austin Pendleton at Choir’s Broadway premiere last year). He is this one-acter’s token white character. Pendleton is one of those archetypal (or stereotypical -- take your pick), rumpled Caucasians who has picked up the proverbial “white man’s burden” and is dedicated to educating minorities and Civil Rights. When he’s introduced Pendleton goes verbally overboard, trying to impress the lads by getting down with the homies (or at least trying to). But later, with an impassioned speech about the “N” word which the homophobic, diffident Bobby Marrow (Donovan Mitchell) insists on using in full, Pendleton reveals his true colors as a Civil Rights crusader who’d marched with Dr. King.

(BTW, according to urban mythology, the physician and researcher Charles R. Drew helped invent the process of blood transfusions and died, when the hospital he was taken to after a car accident supposedly refused to give him a blood transfusion because they only had plasma from white people on hand. In any case, Drew did resist racial segregation when it came to donating blood. About a dozen schools are named after this medical pioneer, including a prep school, but none seem to be named the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys.)

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The playwright does a good job providing back stories for the five young men, especially through their long distance phone calls back home. These provide insights into their characters, what makes them tick and why these scholarship or full-tuition-paying students are attending this private prep school. For most, it is perceived as their ticket to advancing on to university and achieving in modern America

Choir Boy

Donovan Mitchell, Michael A. Shepperd and Leonard Kelly-Young in Choir Boy.

Against this complicated background, Pharus is trying to come of age. As the eponymous choir boy strives to become a choir man, the effeminate Pharus must navigate his emerging sexuality and the strict code of conduct of the prep school, with its official school song of “Trust and Obey” --Presbyterian hymn. There is some full frontal (and back) nudity in Choir Boy, and McCraney takes on the stereotypes relating to the anatomy of Black males. If you listen closely to the dialogue, he may be trying to debunk that myth, not simply reinforcing it. As the well-endowed AJ, Pharus’ roommate, Grantham Coleman strikes the right tone as a big brother figure watching out for the confused Pharus as he strives to make and find his way in the moral universe of the religious school and beyond its presumably ivy covered walls. (Both Coleman and Pope reprise the roles they previously played on Broadway.)

The play ran for almost two hours without an intermission. Its ensemble is well-directed by Trip Cullman, who also helmed Choir Boy on the Great White Way. McCraney’s play debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2013, and this dramatist has won a passel of awards, including a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. His drama is primarily for theatergoers interested in gay subject matter; African American themes; education-centered drama; equal rights; and choral music.

Choir Boy is being performed Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., through Oct. 26 at the Gil Gates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village, CA 90024. For tickets: (310)208-5454; for more info: www.GeffenPlayhouse.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.) Rampell and co-author Luis Reyes will be signing books at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 6 at the bookstore Distant Lands, 20 S. Raymond Avenue,
Pasadena, CA 91105. (See: http://www.distantlands.com/events-calendar/.)