An all-male boarding school serves as the starting point for Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy. During a school ceremony, tenor Pharus Jonathan Young is interrupted -- mid-solo -- by a homophobic slur. Back in the choir room, he fights it out with bully Bobby Marrow while three classmates look on and in various ways participate. Headmaster Marrow -- Bobby's uncle -- is not much help, but he brings in retired teacher Mr. Pendleton to help develop the boys and eventually intercede.
If this doesn't sound like anything out of the ordinary, rest assured: it is. McCraney's boys are scholarship students at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a struggling fifty-year old institution with a religious bent noted for their extra-special choir (which helps draw much-needed funding from donors). The golden-voiced Pharus is clearly a limp-wristed outsider; McCraney actually gives us two scenes in which the understanding headmaster implores the boy to control his wrist movements. The situation, not surprisingly, leads to violence -- but not in a manner one might expect.
Sexuality is only one of the issues McCraney tackles. Music is at the heart of the play; the action is often broken by, or accompanied by, the boys singing spirituals a cappella. In this play about an exceptional boys choir, Manhattan Theatre Club has found a cast that can really sing -- and a musical director/vocal arranger, Jason Michael Webb, who has enhanced McCraney's play by providing an almost angelic sound.
The playwright cannily uses the music as catalyst for crisis: a philosophical discourse on whether Negro spirituals contained coded information to help slaves escape, or were merely "songs for the spirit," turns violent and racially ugly. And surprising, too, as the elderly white professor -- a veteran of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s -- erupts with fury.
Jeremy Pope, in his New York debut, is especially captivating as Pharus. He offers a fine mix of assertiveness, outlandishness and vulnerability. All five boys offer good acting performances buoyed by their singing. Standing out among the others is Grantham Coleman as Pharus' understanding, baseball-playing roommate.
The two key performances come from the adults. Tony Award-winning Chuck Cooper presents a warm front as the avuncular but uncomfortable headmaster, all but stopping the show cold late in the proceedings when he lifts up that glorious voice in "I Been in the Storm So Long." Serving as charm-infused sparkplug -- and, unexpectedly, as the moral heart of the play -- is Austin Pendleton as Mr. Pendleton. (The name is presumably a coincidence; an actor not named Pendleton played the role in the London premiere of the play last September, at the Royal Court.) Pendleton, who has been doing this sort of thing since Jerome Robbins put him in Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad in 1962, has a perennial twinkle in his eye and makes it seem effortlessly easy until grabbing us with his violent rage.
McCraney, whose trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays was seen at the Public in 2009, is an up-and-coming playwright who -- having just hit 30 -- seems to be on the threshold. (In March, he received Yale's Windham Campbell Prize, a global writer's award that carries with it a check for $150,000. The Pulitzer, nowadays, gets you a mere $10,000.) McCraney's writing -- and his thinking -- in Choir Boy are arresting and provocative, albeit with a slight lack of clarity in the final sections.
Manhattan Theatre Club has provided McCraney with a first-rate production. (They coproduced the Royal Court production, with a different director and cast. The current version, a coproduction with the Alliance Theatre, will open in Atlanta in September.) Director Trip Cullman -- recently represented in the same space by MTC's Murder Ballad -- does an extra-impressive job here. He also skillfully works the boys through the numerous scene changes. David Zinn has designed an ingenious unit set -- red is the predominant color -- which covers all bases, with Peter Kaczorowski providing an inventive lighting design.
All told, Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy is a rousing, well-acted play illuminated by sunbursts of song and sparks of theatrical lightning.