SpeakEasy's "Choir Boy": Scaling the Heights

Isaiah Reynolds & Jaimar Brown in "Choir Boy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Choir Boy, by Tarell Alvin McCraney (winner of an Oscar for adapted screenplay for Moonlight), the first production of the season by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavillion in the South End, was nominated this past season for four Tony Awards including Best Play. A play with music, as opposed to a traditional piece of musical theater, this work, at an intermissionless hundred minutes or so, features gospel numbers, spirituals, and R & B music to set the stage (if not precisely to advance the story).
The action takes place “last year” at the Charles R. Drew Prep School, renowned for fifty years for its education of young black men as well as for its gospel choir. The newly-chosen head of the choir is Pharus Jonathan Young (Isaiah Reynolds), a gay student whose effeminate mannerisms are not ephemeral but are central to his being his own true self, as he tries to reconcile his identity with his community. He is verbally bullied by his classmate, Bobby Marrow (Malik Mitchell), who just so happens to be the nephew of the school's Headmaster Marrow (J. Jerome Rogers). The other choir members include Pharus' supportive roommate Anthony Justin “AJ” James (Jaimar Brown), David Heard (Dwayne P. Mitchell), Junior Davis (Aaron Patterson), Khamary (Antione Gray), Adrian (Thomas Purvis), and Daniel (Nigel Richards). The remaining character is a white former teacher at the school, Mr. Pendleton (Richard Snee) who figures briefly in the plot as a clueless presence (with his comments about the students' “i-mail” and “g-tunes”) and a catalyst of sorts for the percolating tension permeating this unique student body, which will be left to the audience to discover.

The Cast of "Choir Boy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

But it is the boys-to-men who command one's attention, and each of the ensemble of eight is a wonder in his own particular way (though some look a bit mature for prep-schoolers). One of the means for expressing themselves is the frequent use of “stepping”, using movement, words and sounds (footsteps, clapping and spoken dialog) to communicate solidarity within one's group, which was first seen and heard in this country in the early 1900's in African American sororities and fraternities. As Music Director David Freeman Coleman references in his program notes, when this stepping is combined with the music of spirituals it strives to convey harmony with nature and the cosmos. It's as much about feeling and expression as it is about content. Pharus understands spirituals on a deeper level because of who and what he is. How he interacts with the choir shows us just how to reach the heights through music. 

Nigel Richards, Thomas Purvis, Malik Mitchell, Dwayne P. Mitchell,
 Jaimar Brown & Aaron Patterson in "Choir Boy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

As beautifully Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent, with electric Choreography by Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White, it's a real crowd-pleaser, and rightly so. There is more energy on stage than in any dozen musicals. On the creative side, the Set Design is by Baron E. Pugh, with Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, Lighting Design by Oliver Wason and Sound Design by Darby Smotherman.

Malik Mitchell and Members of the Cast of "Choir Boy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Hats off to SpeakEasy and Parent for discovering eight performers who have to sing, dance and act, and manage to do so virtually without a break. It's a fascinating theatrical experience to encounter black people as the majority of their community, as Parent states in the program, “dealing with issues within a culture that flourished despite racism, slavery and oppression”, with morality straight out of the 50's with “queer kids of color under systems of oppression that are rooted in old thinking”. The playwright clearly knows this community intimately, and, after spending time with this remarkable troop, so will you.

See and hear them scale those heights now through October 12th.

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