David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member
“Every place I went felt the same. Cept . . . Until I got to Drew. Everybody didn't like me but I had . . . I had space to let me be. Now everybody looking at me like, ‘Blackeye, probation, Yup, that's what you get.’” – Pharus to ‘AJ’
After a successful and extended run at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s important and engaging “Choir Boy” closes on Sunday March 10, 2019. With only six opportunities remaining, theatregoers are urged to see one of the remaining performances.
Following an embarrassing wrestling match in the dorm room they share at The Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys (no spoiler alert), Pharus Jonathan Young (an intense yet fragile Jeremy Pope) and Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James (a powerful and sensitive John Clay III) have a conversation that is perhaps the turning point in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Both Pharus and ‘AJ’ are young men of color: Pharus is gay and a junior at the school and ‘AJ’ is straight and a senior. Pharus makes no apologies for his sexual status; in fact, he is quite open with his peers and with the Headmaster. ‘AJ’ is secure in his sexual status and supports Pharus with unconditional and non-judgmental love. But first, more about those ‘peers.’
On the surface, the play seems to address the horrific bullying Pharus experiences at the hands of Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson) nephew of Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper). This bullying becomes evident in the first scene of the play when, during Pharus’s solo of “Trust and Obey the school’s Song, Bobby directs two homophobic slurs from behind Pharus. Bobby’s toxic masculinity and homophobia seem uncontrollable despite the restraint urged by his fellow students and his Headmaster Uncle.
What Pharus has “gotten” all his life is rejection, verbal and emotional abuse, humiliation, deep hurt, and unchecked bullying. What this young gay man “gets” from ‘AJ’ is acceptance and agapic love. Issues of gender identity and the conflicts that often result therefrom clash and are exacerbated by the pandemic specter of racism. After ‘AJ’ realizes why Pharus has become isolated, he embraces Pharus and demonstrates the true nature of friendship. ‘AJ’ confronts Pharus with, “When I came in 2nd year – you were alone in here. Who was your roommate first year? Who had left before?” Significant relationships require sensitivity and awareness. ‘AJ’ creates for Pharus the safe place he needs as opposed to the hypocrisy of the institution and the disingenuous patter of the seemingly sympathetic headmaster.
Under Trip Cullman’s sensitive and discerning direction, and with the full support of the dynamic cast, Mr. Pope and Mr. Clay III wrestle with the relentless demons of homophobia and racism and deliver engaging performances that are solidly related to their disparate conflicts.
The cast of “Choir Boy” features Nicholas L. Ashe (Junior Blake), Daniel Bellomy (Ensemble), Jonathan Burke (Ensemble), Gerald Caesar (Ensemble), John Clay III (Anthony Justin “AJ” James), Chuck Cooper (Headmaster Marrow), Caleb Eberhardt (David Heard), Marcus Gladney (Ensemble), J. Quinton Johnson (Bobby Marrow), Austin Pendleton (Mr. Pendleton) and Jeremy Pope (Pharus Jonathan Young).
“Choir Boy’s” creative team includes Jason Michael Webb (music direction, arrangements & original music), David Zinn (scenic & costume design), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting design), Fitz Patton (original music & sound design), Cookie Jordan (hair & make-up design), Thomas Schall (fight director) and Camille A. Brown (choreography).
“Choir Boy” runs at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street) through Sunday March 10, 2019. Tickets for “Choir Boy” are available at www.Telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200, or by visiting The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Box Office at 261 West 47th Street. For more information on “Choir Boy,” including the performance schedule and cast biographies, visit https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/.
Photo: (back-front) John Clay III and Jeremy Pope in “Choir Boy.” Credit: Matthew Murphy.