Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.
When: through Nov. 12
By ANNE SPISELMAN
If everything in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” at Raven Theatre came together as well as the spirituals sung by the choir of the fictional Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, this would be a stunning Chicago premiere. But the 90-minute one act by the 2016 Academy Award winner (with Barry Jenkins for the screenplay of “Moonlight”) has enough underdeveloped subplots for a whole season of a television series, and the production directed by Raven’s artistic director Michael Menendian is confusing at times, rather stodgy, and unimaginative.
The play begins with Pharus Jonathan Young (Christopher W. Jones), a junior at the all African American college prep academy with a religious bent, singing the school song in front of the graduating class. Two of the four boys sitting behind him, who we soon learn are Bobby Marrow (Patrick Agada) and his sidekick Junior Davis (Julian Terrell Otis), start laughing and making comments we can’t quite hear. Pharus pauses and looks back; then there’s a blackout.
Next thing we know Pharus is in the office of Headmaster Marrow (Robert D. Hardaway), who is angrily chewing him out for his behavior and demanding to know the cause. Citing the school’s honor code, Pharus refuses to say who was taunting him, even though his coveted position as choir leader for the coming year is at risk. His tone is less respectful than one might expect, though it’s hard to tell for sure if the action is set in the present, two or three decades ago, or even earlier.
In any case, Pharus remains choir leader and gets his revenge by kicking Bobby, who happens to be the headmaster’s nephew, out of the choir for what, it turns out, were homophobic slurs. Pharus’ homosexuality is pretty much an open secret, but one that isn’t acknowledged openly. The headmaster, for example, criticizes him for having a “limp wrist” and worries that he might get hurt.
The antipathy between Agada’s angry, fierce Bobby and Pharus, who’s portrayed by Jones as a cocky know-it-all who thinks he’s better than anyone else, escalates. Junior periodically tries to mediate, and the other two boys, Anthony Justin “AJ” James (Tamarus Harvell), who is Pharus’ roommate, and David Heard (Darren Patin), who is at the school on a scholarship and wants to become a minister, more-or-less keep out of the fray.
The school is approaching its 50th anniversary, and when the headmaster enlists the heretofore retired Mr. Pendleton (Don Tieri) to teach a course on “creative thinking”–and improbably to supervise the choir–the conflict spills over into the classroom. Mr. Pendleton is white, but his initial racially insensitive remarks aren’t the issue, especially after the headmaster informs the students about his work for the civil rights movement. Instead, there is a heated argument about the nature and purpose of the Negro spirituals. Pharus asserts that the music was an end in itself that provided solace and hope for the enslaved—and continues to inspire today. Bobby vehemently disagrees and, like many, holds that songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” contained coded messages to help guide the slaves to freedom.
Besides being a flash point for Bobby, this fascinating discussion doesn’t go much of anywhere. On the other hand, and perhaps ironically, the only time the boys come together in harmony is when they’re singing. The actors have wonderful voices; music director Frederick Harris does a fine job, and choreographer Breon Arzell adds some nice moves, though if this is supposed to be the present, they’re dated.
Pharus’ relationship with his straight, athletic roommate, AJ, perfectly embodied by Harvell, arguably is the most interesting but goes relatively unexplored. We see some horsing around and some awkwardness, but the explanation for AJ’s feelings—divulged in a meeting with the headmaster—could be made clearer. The most moving scene of the evening is the one in which AJ gives his roommate a hair cut at a critical time, and Pharus’ vulnerability, rarely on display, is palpable.
The crucial encounter with another student that leads to the play’s climax is given short shrift, partly because the handling of the incident seems rushed, and partly because Ray Toler’s set design on the wide stage deliberately insures everyone’s modesty in the shower room with a waist-high wall. Three main stage areas serve multiple purposes, and pauses for scene changes slow the flow of the action. We also have to adjust to certain conventions; for example, for the spirituals, Bobby keeps singing with the others even after he’s been kicked out of the choir.
“Choir Boy” would benefit from some reworking and stronger direction, but it’s worth seeing for the acting and especially the singing.