tarell alvin mccraney’s ‘choir boy’ feels like home

January 16, 2019
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The original plan was that I would go see Chicago on Broadway in December with a friend. It would be my first time seeing a show on Broadway and it would’ve been terrific. I pictured the Christmas lights sparkling in my eyes, as my friend and I skipped closer and closer to the theatre. I’d be dazzled — hell, ravished — by the music and the dance that would take place right in front of me. And I would cry. I would cry because within a year a little high-school dropout from Georgia would’ve made it to Broadway as a professor, as an editor, as an adult. Yet my friend and I both experienced personal tragedies in December and the scene did not come to be, except in my mind.

Fast forward to a gray day of boring emails, when I received an exciting one that read that I had a pair of tickets to see Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy. I responded “yes” before I had time to read the courteous (but unnecessary) question that asked if I was available. Even if I were not, I would be. McCraney’s writing has been a space for my self-reflection as a queer thing ever since I saw Moonlight, which was based on his play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I love the space for imagining that McCraney’s work gives me, while being so tightly defined that it still feels like him; for his use of poetry as dialogue; and of silence — emptiness — as an effective way to move the audience while also allowing us to complete the story with our own imagination. All this has made McCraney’s offerings something I thirst for.

Like magic, I could picture it. Wrapped in fabrics and determination, me and another friend would fight New York City’s cold as we drove into Manhattan from Brooklyn. We would be changed. We would cry. We’d share silences and conversations during a long cab ride to dinner, and even that wouldn’t be enough to articulate the theatrical magic we witnessed. It would be my first Broadway production, and it would be about a Black gay man by a Black gay man, and I’d be with a Black gay man. And I’d cry again because within a year, a little high-school dropout from Atlanta would’ve made it to Broadway as a professor, as an editor, as an adult, as a Black gay man. This time, the fantasy came to be.

At first glance, Choir Boy is a quaint story. It’s about a group of Black boys grappling with manhood at the conservative, all-male high-school Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys— a common theme in McCraney’s work — and the main character, Pharus (played magnetically by Jeremy Pope), a junior, is coming to terms with his gender performance, sexuality, relationships, and the future while battling his own interior relationship with exceptionalism, music, and leadership. This is the smooth genius in Choir Boy. There are moments when the show feels like a warm sitcom that could end with a hug and a catchphrase by one of the boys; but suddenly the energy halts, and the warmth jerks into serious, soul-shattering drama. This is a Black queer teenage experience.

Choir Boy felt personal like nothing I’ve ever seen before, to the point I hesitated penning a review of it because I feared I wouldn’t be able to get out of its world — the one that stretches from the sway of Pharus’ hips, to the complicated space he is forced into in order to balance adulthood and leadership roles, while being told he is too soft to lead and too odd to be protected.

During the play, one of the students calls Pharus a “faggot ass nigga”, and although vulgar, in the context of this play and my experience, it still feels like the most accurate moment in the play. It was the moment I began to trust Choir Boy. Very few phrases join both my sexual/gender identity and my racial identity, and problematizes it so quickly and effectively. They are words that describe me so brutally yet correctly, bridged together by that which seems to always be in hot water: my ass. As the audience gasped in disbelief at the hatred displayed by one of the characters, I sighed in relief. Finally, a play that saw me and everything that happened before. It felt true and empowering, that even the verbal assault of my now-beloved Pharus before me, felt like freedom. Although painful, it was not a lie. It was not a dramatization for the sake of shock, it was a complicated truth and a toxic moment that came to be because of how everyone grapples with their sexuality, gender, race, and looming adulthood.

Black gay men that perform femininity are usually flattened for comedic purposes, and although Pharus role was that of a mammy often, it wasn’t so much because the playwright recreated a trope, but told an honest narrative about the available roles in society for the Black femininity. And it married that struggle to also having to find your manhood and complicated that unique circumstance as the play advanced.

But, it was Pharus’ romantic interest singing “Love Ballad” by Jeffrey Osborne of L.T.D in a daydream sequence that most sticks in my head days after seeing the production. The music in Choir Boy was joyous and full, sometimes haunting, the lack of instrumentation to some of the most anthemic Black songs brought a skeletal and chilling quality to the music. One that bridges lush soul and funk ballads to the minimalist, acapella negro spirituals sang by our ancestors. Hearing soul songs sound hollow, only filled with the brilliant vocals of the cast makes music usually reserved for family reunions sound like something fit for grief and struggle. Which Pharus as an openly gay, effeminate Black man will surely be marching into as his adulthood unfolds.

This is the exceptional and strange thing about Choir Boy. It preserves a universal feel good Black experience that is pleasurable to observe in our media and art, but guts it and puts something queer there. This can be strange for some — probably many in the majority white audience where I witnessed the play and for the countless folks that don’t personally relate to a Black queer teenage reckoning — but the queerness injected in Choir Boy, for me, was how I knew I was right at home.