Pharus Young is the most gifted singer in the lauded choir at Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. So why do a couple of his fellow choir members whisper slurs during his — and the choir’s — big commencement performance at the start of “Choir Boy”?
Perhaps it’s because the high school junior with the cheeks of a cherub, the voice of many an angel, also has at times the snappy delivery of RuPaul. Sexuality and spirituality — by way of spirituals — is on rare and riveting display in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s production in the round of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, which premiered on Broadway in 2018. (It runs through May 29.)
The action unfolds on a deceptively simple set, beneath a hexagon bearing the values of the academy: Honor. Character. Integrity. Truth. Excellence. Achievement. Named for the surgeon, inventor and father of the modern blood bank, Drew is a proud, tradition-bound institution.
When Pharus paused in the middle of the school’s song, “Trust and Obey,” and turned to eye his tormentors, his chances for remaining choirmaster plummeted. The choir has for decades been a fundraising engine, and the board of directors feels the pomp was ruined.
Still green but savvy, too, Headmaster Marrow (Josh A. Dawson) demands Pharus explain the circumstances of his breech — which is a tricky proposition. “A Drew man doesn’t tell on his brother. He allows him the honor to confess himself,” Pharus reminds him. The bully in question, Robert Marrow III (Alex Michell), is unlikely to do the honorable thing. And, yes, you are correct: Bobby and the headmaster share a last name.
If you go
“Choir Boy,” written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Jamil Jude. Featuring Josh A. Dawson, Josh Fulton, Darron Hayes, Alex Michell, Brandon Stalling, Peter Van Wagner and Kyle Ward. At the Kilstrom Theatre, Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis. Through May 29. For tickets and info: denvercenter.org or 303-893-4100.
Although “Choir Boy” deals with privilege and entitlement, coming out and homophobia, it isn’t a message play. McCraney — who co-wrote the Oscar-winning feature “Moonlight” — is too smart and compassionate for that. He gives these young men loads of opinions, but also doubt. Even Bobby’s sidekick, Junior (watch Josh Fulton’s posture for the play’s most astute comedy), finds his friend’s taunting tiresome — or, at least, not worth losing his place in the choir for. He likes to sing. They all do, and “Choir Boy” is rife with music and dance.
Fans of moviedom’s boy school tales will recognize the genre’s tensions here: the pecking order; the intimidating but suspect bravado of the bully; the muted then emboldened courage of those who stand up, and in doing so learn something about themselves and their values. “Dead Poets Society” comes easily to mind. (And that Pharus’ name echoes a different teenage Ferris can’t be an accident, can it?)
Only the boys here grow as much from their developing awareness of what it means to be young Black men as from any teacher’s inspirational intervention.
McCraney’s addition of LGBTQ context expands the heady mix, of course, but in ways that reveal how those tensions might play out within a Black community, this one buoyed by religion. In his casting notes, the playwright describes Pharus not as gay but as “effeminate.” And there’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” vibe at Drew. Pharus’ “swish” won’t score him points but would not be the sole reason for him to be booted from school.
Darron Hayes brings hubris and wonderful confusion to Pharus Young, Drew Prep Choir’s leader, in “Choir Boy.” Credit Adams VisCom provided by the Denver Center
“Choir Boy” is wise about the cusp of self-knowledge that Pharus teeters on. It may be a coming-of-age tale, but this “boy” hasn’t yet come out to himself. The scenes where this is made clear to the audience but even more to Pharus’ roommate, A.J., are humorous, true and aching.
Kyle Ward brings ease and authority to his portrayal of Anthony Justin James, or A.J. At key turns, the jock from rural Georgia surprises Pharus — and us. The reason that he gets prickly around David (Brandon G. Stalling), a young pastor hopeful, is a slowly revealed mystery.
Michell’s Bobby is the least mature, most arrogant of the bunch, which is why he is such a fine counterpoint to Pharus. Bobby has an overblown sense of his status. Pharus has a puffed-up sense of his talent. Each is right, that a bounty has been bestowed upon him. But both are wrong-headed about how to honor that unmerited power with grace. Their antipathy stresses the other boys in the choir.
Brandon Stalling does subtle work as the quiet, gentle, devout David. He also delivers the showstopper of “Choir Boy,” when David sings a Quiet Storm slow jam that declares a love that’s “much more than they can see.”
Sensing that the school’s golden-throated choir is in danger of imploding during its 50th anniversary year, Headmaster Morrow coaxes Mr. Pendleton (Peter Van Wagner) out of retirement to teach a course in creative thinking but also to be faculty sponsor to the choir.
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The only non-Black actor in the cast, Wagner nails the aging teacher’s various attempts at reaching this younger generation. Some of his efforts are wincingly clumsy. Some are endearingly corny. But the scene in which he rears back in righteous hurt at Bobby’s too easy use of the N-word (in its brotha-to-brotha form) is instructional and authentic. Even so, it’s not Pendleton’s but Headmaster Marrow’s defense of the outburst that sticks the history lesson.
An equally nuanced conflict finds Pharus and Bobby arguing about the power and history of spirituals. Were songs like “Wade in the Water” coded intel sending the enslaved toward freedom? Or was their spirit-sustaining force enough? McCraney’s deft set-up suggests a third question: Why is this even an either/or proposition?
Director Jamil Jude and the cast ensure our connection to each boy – yes, even Bobby. Phone calls home underscore their need for kin but also reveal the sometimes-thorny relationship the caller might have to the family member on the other end of the line. The one-sided phone calls hint at the burdens — emotional but often economic — of being a Drew man.
The set is lean and evocative — until it turns stunning. With scenic design magic, Tony Cisek invites the audience into that most fraught of spaces: the school shower. And, more than once, under the eloquent direction of Jude and choreographer Kaja Dunn, the students wade into those waters real and metaphorical. The effect — all steam and thrumming water — is as gorgeous as it is stirring.
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