Black experience, obviously, is human experience and, even in America, where Black lives are inevitably impacted by our nation’s complex racial history, that experience is infinitely varied. To a great extent, though, our public media — popular entertainment and mainstream journalism — present a stereotypical version of Black experience that either emphasizes such tropes as poverty, racism, ghettoization, hiphop subculture, crime, and so forth or offers a bland erasure of cultural distinctiveness where Blackness is reduced to a nebulous grey cultural pablum.
Sadly, our theatre as well is not as open to varieties of Black experience as it might and should be. However, in recent decades, there have been distinguished exceptions to this sad history, and the theatre world can be proud of that. Perhaps the most famous accomplishment in this regard has been the incredible life’s work of August Wilson, whose ten “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays have transformed the American theatre with a brilliant infusion of Black life and perspective.
Tarell Alvin McCraney is another playwright who has embarked upon a distinguished career exploring this too uncharted territory. His brillance has been widely recognized, most notably for his trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays.” McCraney is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and has been international playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where ‘Choir Boy’ received its premiere.
His chosen setting for “Choir Boy” of a distinguished Black preparatory school for boys is a remarkably original one. These young men, deeply aware of their Black identities, are also children of privilege, attending school in an environment of academic, artistic, and athletic excellence, tradition and discipline. The characters play havoc with stereotypes: one young man is a legacy student, another a scholarship boy. The main character (the titular “Choir Boy”) is head of the boys choir, passionately dedicated to music, and struggling to maintain his pride and dignity as a brilliantly gifted young man who is both gay and Black and determined to command respect. It isn’t easy. He struggles to understand Black history and the music he loves, balance his complex relationships with his peers, and respect his school’s honor code.
The above description of the plot does not begin to do justice to the dramatic impact of this beautiful play. It is remarkable for the complex delineation of each boy’s distinctly individual struggle to become a man while dealing with the complexities of race and sexuality and privilege. The action is punctuated movingly and spectacularly by the performance of the boys in choir. The plot requires that the choir singing be of unparalleled excellence and the actors deliver that, superbly directed by Darius Smith.
It is difficult to describe this play because, like much of the best work of contemporary playwrights, it is not driven so much by plot as by very carefully observed real-time moments. The intimacy of these scenes is astonishing: two boys talking together in a dorm room at night; a group of boys showering; boys in a classroom meeting and challenging a new teacher; a boy defending himself before a strict headmaster. Each scene is observed with an emotional depth rarely encountered. The depth of personal exposure — of the wondrous theatrical accomplishment of being truly private in public — achieved by these actors is fantastic.
Every actor in the cast (with the exception of an excellent Charles Shaw Robinson, playing a white teacher) is making his Marin Theatre Company debut and each one is distinguished. Each man here could and should be nominated for a “best actor” award, and the entire cast should be recognized for its remarkable ensemble accomplishment. In almost any other production, each of these actors would stand out — but, here, they are truly a team — a choir — performing with a single exquisite voice.
After the performance I attended on a Wednesday night, given to a packed house, the entire cast was called back enthusiastically to take a second curtain call for an audience that would not stop applauding.
Most likely, you’ll keep applauding too.
“Choir Boy” continues an extended run at Marin Theatre Company through July 5. For further information, click here.
“Choir Boy” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Bay area premire produced by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Kent Gash. Scenic Designer: Jason Sherwood. Lighting Designer: Kurt Landisman. Costume Designer: Callie Floor. Music Director: Darius Smith.
Headmaster Marrow: Ken Robinson. Pharus Jonathan Young: Jelani Alladin. Bobby Marrow: Dimitri Woods. Junior Davis: Rotimi Agbabiaka. Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James: Jaysen Wright. Davd Heard: Forest Van Dyke. Mr. Pendleton: Charles Shaw Robinson.
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