THOUGHTS: Choir Boy

Choir Boy Ensemble

Pharus (Jelani Alladin), Junior (Rotimi Agbabiaka), David (Forest Van Dyke), Bobby (Dimitri Woods) and AJ (Jaysen Wright) performing. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

It seems fitting to see a play that deals homosexuality on the day the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage. Like Loving v. Virginia almost a half-century ago, Obergefell v. Hodge is poised to change history.

Tarell Alvin McCraney originally debuted Choir Boy in September 2012, but with the Supreme Court decision and the recent attacks on African-American congregations in the South, it feels like it was written specifically for the audience of June 2015.

Choir Boy is set at Charles R. Drew Prep School, an all-black boy’s boarding school in an unnamed location that we assume is relatively rural (farms are mentioned at one point). The school’s choir, which consists of juniors Bobby (Dimitri Woods), Junior (Rotimi Agbabiaka) and seniors, AJ (Jaysen Wright), David (Forest Van Dyke), and Pharus (Jelani Alladin), is the pride and joy of the school. But a conflict between Pharus and Bobby threatens to upend what Headmaster Marrow (Ken Robinson) has worked to build. In an effort to ease this tension, the Headmaster introduces a former teacher, Mr. Pendleton (Charles Shaw Robinson), who has returned from retirement to teach an elective and ultimately be the faculty sponsor to the choir.

Mr Pendleton and Pharus

Teacher/choir sponsor Mr. Pendleton (Charles Shaw Robinson) and Pharus (Jelani Alladin) share a moment.
Photo credit: Kevin Berne

With this coming-of-age story, McCraney touches on so many different themes that I wanted the play was longer. He teases ideas of tensions between legacy (Bobby) and scholarship students (everyone else), but never fully delves into class conflicts. In a few scenes, we get a glimpse of what each of the students is dealing with from an economic perspective, but they are really just there to give the characters more dimension. McCraney also introduces a seemingly-clueless white teacher into the all-black cast, and hints at past struggles, but never gives the teacher a chance to full reveal his history to the students.

Where the play shines is in the relationships between the characters, especially Pharus and AJ’s friendship, and in the way gospel music is interspersed with the action. This is, ultimately, a play with music, not a musical, but as in musicals, the characters sing when the emotion is so great that the only way to reveal a part of themselves is through music. It is beautiful to watch.

Although Marin Theatre Co is a charming and intimate venue, it is too bad the audience for this play will be limited to those who can access Mill Valley. I would love to see this play staged in San Francisco or Berkeley/Oakland to reach a wider audience.

Reasons to go:

  • The uniformly talented cast, especially Jelani Alladin who fully embodies the character of Pharus
  • The beautiful voices and harmony
  • Kent Gash’s direction
  • Darius Smith’s musical direction

Who should go: Teens through adults

Tips:

  • Arrive early, parking can be difficult
  • The MTC website has a list of restaurants in the area, take advantage of it
  • There are post-show talks after most shows

Themes: sexuality, racism, homophobia, faith, Christianity, education

Advisory: Some violence, strong language, slurs, nudity

Show information: via Marin Theatre Company website, through July 6

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