Stage review: Songs speak to the soul of The Rep's intense 'Choir Boy'
October 1, 2015 12:00 AM
The boys of "Choir Boy": From left, David (Mel Holley), Junior (LaTrea Rembert), Pharus (Tru Verret-Fleming), Bobby (Justin Lonesome) and AJ (Lamont Walker II).
By Christopher Rawson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Homophobia at a prestigious all-black prep school is at the heart of it. In contrast, there are spirituals, lovingly sung a cappella as respite from the taut, competitive life of a demanding institution with high standards of academics and integrity.
Where: The Rep in the Studio Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse of Point Park University, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
When: Through Oct. 11; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Tickets: $24-$29, $15 seniors, $10 students; http://www.pittsburghplayhouse.com or 412-392-8000.
The songs fit easily into Tarell Alvin McCraney’s intense “Choir Boy,” now at The Rep at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, because the five boys we meet at the fictional Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys are also members of its choir, the school’s chief pride. This is no musical in the usual sense, but dramatic scenes are regularly intercut with song, the one mode commenting on the other, sometimes ironically, sometimes with plaintive effect.
The boy of the title is the central character, Pharus Jonathan Young, a rising senior who has been chosen to lead the choir. The play begins with him singing the school song (tellingly entitled “Trust and Obey”) at one year’s graduation, then takes us through a school year toward his own graduation and the transfer of leadership to the next class.
From the start, the divisive issue is Pharus’ homosexuality, hardly acknowledged by any, but recognized by all, especially Pharus, however confused he may be about it. The different reactions of the other four boys create the drama. Presiding over this snarl of emotions are the headmaster and an elderly white teacher, Mr. Pendleton (neat trivia: the role was played in New York by Austin Pendleton).
Mr. Pendleton leads the boys in an amorphous discussion class meant to tackle history, philosophy, you name it. (You may think of the analogous class in “The History Boys,” although that is a larger, better play.) In these informal class scenes, a stop-and-start plot takes a back burner to random talk, but it allows Mr. McCraney to wax lyrical about music, history and personal ideals.
That intermittent lyricism is a chief attraction, as some may remember from the still young (now 34) playwright’s two “Brothers Size” plays based on Yoruba mythology and staged by City Theatre in 2008 and 2011. Here, the setting is more familiar. The latter part of the play is a sort of whodunit, but what’s most important is the torment of 18-year-olds trying to align their personal passions with a rigid, aspirational institution.
“Choir Boy” is 100 minutes without intermission, the more intense because of the tiny Studio Theater. It is feelingly directed by Tome Cousin, who has assembled a fine cast, all with some past or present connection to the Point Park University theater program.
Driving the play is Tru Verret-Fleming as Pharus, in a performance often too hysteric by half. He starts the play so over-the-top that it suggests manic comedy more than serious drama. In contrast, most everyone else acts within the boundaries of stage realism.
Fortunately, Mr. Verret-Fleming is a charismatic actor, so even when playing out of scale, he is a magnetic center around which circle friend, antagonist, the latter’s henchman and the boy caught in the deepest emotional dilemma — played with impressive commitment respectively by Lamont Walker II, Justin Lonesome, LaTrea Rembert and Mel Holley.
The two adults are the headmaster, not much more than a talking stoplight, played by Jason Shavers, and the white teacher, initially comic but gradually something more, played by Jeff Howell.
Ultimately, the boys have to find themselves within the school’s system or outside it. Their fates are unresolved: life stretches before them. What we’re left with is the deep emotional power of song as both cultural history and personal testament.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.
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