A 2019 Tony Award nominee for Best Play, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy is receiving a spirited, well-acted New England premiere at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, where it will run through Oct 12. McCraney, best known as the Oscar-winning co-writer of Moonlight, mines similar territory here—young black men coming of age while grappling with masculine identity and homophobia—even though it doesn’t ultimately pack the same punch as the Oscar-winning Best Picture. While I am still as lukewarm about the play as I was when I saw the Broadway production earlier this year, SpeakEasy’s production—under the direction of Maurice Emmanuel Parent—is notable (and dare I say unmissable) because of the incredible ensemble of actors at its core.
Set at Drew Prep, an all-black boys’ school, Pharus Young (an impressive Isaiah Reynolds) is entering his senior year as the head of the school’s choir, a role that means more to him than probably anything else in his life. Pharus chokes during his solo at a performance when Bobby, a homophobic hothead, hurls insults at him. (One of the miracles of this production, Malik Mitchell—a 19-year-old Dorchester native—is making his professional debut as Bobby). When Headmaster Marrow (J. Jerome Rogers) calls Pharus into his office and demands that he tells him what happened on stage, Pharus refuses on the grounds that Drew men don’t snitch.
But Bobby—who is used to getting away with far more than he ought to because Headmaster Marrow is his uncle—becomes convinced that Pharus snitched and wants him kicked off the choir. But when Bobby gets voted off the choir instead—and when Pharus goes after his mother—it’s war between the two, a war that bleeds into both of their relationships with the other members of the choir, not the mention the adults of the school. Pharus is something of an easy target, wildly flamboyant with a brilliantly sassy tongue that cuts deep when he feels threatened, and Reynolds navigates his enigmatic waters well, particularly when Pharus allows himself to be vulnerable, such as in a scene where his lovable jock roommate (played impressively by Jaimar Brown) reveals himself as a much needed ally.
The other boys have their own issues, though, and the way their stories seep out doesn’t always feel organic and believable, which is part of the reason why Choir Boy occasionally falters. It feels sometimes, too, like an overblown after school special badly in need of some nuance and editing, and I still don’t find the ending of the play satisfying. But let’s not overlook the value of a piece of theater that gives voice to young, black adolescent men—all of whom are grappling with their own pain, confusion, and sense of self—and that may be the most valuable thing of all about Choir Boy, flaws be damned.
Parent’s production of Choir Boy is at its most impactful during the musical numbers, which range from stirring renditions of Negro spirituals (David Freeman Coleman’s musical direction is impeccable) to intense, muscular step routines, which are perfectly choreographed by Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White.
The crowning achievement of this production, however, is the ensemble performance of the eight young men that make up the Drew boys. As much of a testament to Parent’s own directorial prowess as it is to this ensemble’s talent (an accomplished actor, this is only Parent’s second outing as director), I remain in awe of the painstakingly naturalistic—and soul scorching—performances that make Choir Boy a vital theatergoing experience.
CHOIR BOY. THROUGH 10.12 AT SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM