Most of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s plays – such as the exquisite “The Brother/Sister Plays” – are poetic, passionate dramas in which free-wheeling symbolism dances across a lush, metaphorical landscape.
But “Choir Boy,” a 2012 drama you can see now in a superb production by director Kent Gash at the Steppenwolf Theater, is closer, really, to the movie “Moonlight,” which McCraney, who spent many of his years training in Chicago, won an Oscar.
The play, rooted in American realism, is set in the fictional Charles R. Drew school, dedicated to the preparation of “strong and ethical black men”, and focuses on the experience of the last year of a young gay man, Pharus, played in Chicago by Broadway actor Tyler Hardwick. Pharus conducts the school choir and so the room is steeped in choral arrangements. “Choir Boy” is almost a musical jukebox of sacred sound.
McCraney is interested here in how the upbringing of black elites and its moral values surrounding manhood intersect with the needs of a hyper-talented gay child. But the piece is also a closely observed totem image of black male adolescence, and, going even further, I will argue that anyone of any race who has suffered the inevitable traumas of single-sex upbringing (including this writer) totally be able to relate to everything that’s going on in this piece.
On some levels, the themes of this work are now pervasive in American nonprofit theater; This year’s Tony winner for Best Musical, ‘A Strange Loop’, focuses on a very similar character’s relationship to mainstream black and majority culture, albeit later in life, and you can stream numerous progressive plays lamenting authoritarian educational institutions. And, yes, you get a hunch at the start of “Choir Boy” — when the director (played with a kind of worried sadness by La Shawn Banks) tells the boy that manhood inherently involves repression — that Drew won’t be l happiest place for Pharus, a hyper-positive kid who knows exactly who he is but is inevitably thrown around with those who don’t.
But McCraney is a poet, not a moralistic ideologue or political propagandist happy to play backing vocals. Her vision in this piece is surprisingly inclusive and warm, filled with compassion for all struggling teenagers, especially during the high-pressure transitions into college and adulthood.
It even features a teacher, played by William Dick, who you’d expect to be the standard old white racist (audiences even reacted that way early on Saturday), but turns out he has a similar heart to the playwright. .
None of this is to say that “Choir Boy” strays from his beliefs, especially his belief that self-obscuration only leads to personal conflict and that those who fear their own sexuality can often transform themselves. into unconscious aggressors (I remember). And he’s astute in his exploration of how young black men can feel pressured to succeed, often on terms that are, in part, a legacy of our shared racist past. But the play is also assertive, and like so many great plays, it’s mostly about flawed but decent people who didn’t create the past and are all doing their best to survive in the present.
The work had an interesting history. Written a decade ago, it played mostly in regional and smaller houses (I first saw it at the Raven Theater in Chicago) before a pre-pandemic Broadway stand in 2019 dramatically boosted its profile. The part has been revised and updated a bit and now looks very similar to the present.
The cast, made up of mostly young artists — Richard David, Gilbert Domally, Samuel B. Jackson — is uniformly strong. Besides Hardwick, who is gripping, there’s also a deeply kind, sweet, and warm performance from Sheldon D. Brown, playing the straight friend of a young gay man, in the truest sense of the word.
What I didn’t expect (with all due respect to Raven) was how beautiful the show’s music is now, especially when sung at this level. Singing has always been a rarity on the Steppenwolf stage and I had forgotten how responsive the main stage is. I’ve had some lousy sound mixes lately at shows downtown and the audibles here, designed by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, look great, as does Arnel Sancianco’s set, with portraits of great black leaders, looking staring at the next generation, a little worrying. Especially if you see them every day.
The excellence of this production is a reminder of what Gash can do as a director. He’s not well known in Chicago, although I remember seeing quite a bit of his work 20 or 25 years ago at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. This is a beautifully staged spectacle – only the very last rushed moment doesn’t quite work – that’s brilliantly acted, thrillingly staged and filled with the heart that comes with age. It’s worth 95 minutes of your time, my friends.
Review: “Choir Boy” (4 stars)
When: Until July 24
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Tickets: $20 to $98 at 312-335-1650 and www.steppenwolf.org