On Stage: Constrained by Tradition

by Chuck Conconi

‘Choir Boy’ highlights the duality of tradition and handling contemporary issues. 

Keith Antone, Jonathan Burke, Jelani Alladin, Jaysen Wright, and Alan Wade in Choir Boy at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Igor Dmitry)

Keith Antone, Jonathan Burke, Jelani Alladin, Jaysen Wright, and Alan Wade in Choir Boy at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Igor Dmitry)

Gospel music dominates the Charles P. Drew Prep School for Boys. It is a place where privileged young black men prepare for a future of success, learning to be leaders of men. But it is also a place of rigid rules, fifty years of tradition and an inflexible honor code.

For the young men, it also represents a volatile mixture of coming of age and the confused messages on how the rules traditions deal with contemporary problems such as homosexuality. That crosscurrent is the focus of “Choir Boy,” now at Studio Theatre. The author, Tarell McCraney, understands that in spite of being cocooned and dressed in blazers, khakis, and orange-and-gold school ties, the young boys aren’t being adequately prepared.

As is often the case at prep schools, the boys come from money and influence. One of them, Pharus, (Jelani Alladin) is gay. He is musically talented and loves the spiritual music of the school’s prestigious choir, but on the day he has the honor of singing the school song, “Trust and Obey,” before the assembly marking the beginning of the school year, he uncomfortably pauses in the middle of the song. Unheard by the audience of parents, board members and benefactors are hissed slurs about his sexuality.

When he is called before the headmaster (Marty Austin Lamar) who demands to know what happened and who was responsible, Pharus refuses to answer. He is not a rebel, but he firmly believes in the Charles P. Drew code and will not reveal the names of the boys who taunted him.

Pharus is confident he can deal with the bullying as the new head of the choir. Alladin’s portrayal of Pharus is careful. It is clear he is gay, but Alladin doesn’t allow his character to be a cliché of what is generally perceived to be how a gay young man moves and speaks.

Pharus decides to get even with the instigator of the taunting, Bobby, (Keith Antone) by kicking him off of the choir. Antone’s Bobby is menacingly angry and is confident of being well connected, and unlike Pharus, is not a scholarship student. Being a scholarship student, apparently, is often look down on at prep schools.

Bobby is also the nephew of the headmaster and his father is influential. Pharus is of the youthful, naïve misconception that because of his talent, he can do as he pleases. He seems oblivious that he has no friends other than his well-adjusted roommate, A. J. (Jaysen Wright). One of the more moving scenes in “Choir Boy” is when A.J. helps a troubled Pharus get through a sleepless night by trimming his hair.

Kent Gash’s smooth and understated direction allows the intensity and poignancy of McCraney’s complex script to explore the striking ambiguities without drifting into absolutes about right and wrong. Jason Sherwood’s set is a semi-circular room with a wood-patterned floor and five framed doorways and paneled walls with trophies and photographs emphasizing 50 years of scholarship and tradition.

The frequent a cappella Gospel segments of the choir members, including Eric Lockley and Jonathan Burke, are so smoothly blended into the production that they never seem intrusive. Under the music direction of Darius Smith, they are welcome interludes and emphasize why the choir is so important.

Lamar is a significant presence, and his headmaster is an intimidating figure. His concern about the choir’s turmoil inspires him to bring in a white teacher, Mr. Pendleton, who argues with the headmaster that he has no musical abilities. Pendleton is not there for music; he is to be an adult presence in dealing with Pharus and the fractious choir.

A veteran of the 1960s civil rights era, Pendleton (Alan Wade) is the tweedy image of an academic. At one point, furious with the boys who have drifted into name calling, he rages that they don’t understand the sacrifices previous generations endured so they could enjoy their present privileged positions.

In the flexibility of the set, the doorways also become a shower room with the five boys in once scene standing nude under falling water and singing the poignant “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” It is frontal nudity that isn’t gratuitous.

McCraney’s “Choir Boy” is an hour and forty uninterrupted minutes of the pessimistic truth that at the Charles P. Drew Prep School, tradition can uplift, but it can also constrain. The boys are the beneficiaries of the school’s past 50 years, but are also the victims of those 50 years.

‘Choir Boy’ continues through February 22 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20-$83 and available 202-332-3300 and online here

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