January 19, 2019
Spirituals bind the young African-American men of the Charles R. Drew Prep
School for Boys, and despite its prestigious reputation, Drew Prep’s refined
atmosphere is curdling at the edges of propriety.
Insightfully written by Tarrell Alvin MacCraney, Choir Boy delves into the growing pains of young black men solidifying identities within a privileged school’s
hierarchy and American society. Much of the dramatic action is driven by the
soulful spirituals, Camille A. Brown’s urgent choreography and Trip Cullen’s
A source of Drew Prep pride, the much-lauded choir engenders joyful
camaraderie and cut-throat competition that pits a legacy student against a
scholarship student. Arrogant and assertive, Bobby Marrow (a fine J. Quinton
Johnson) lobs sexual slurs at Pharus (a stand-out Jeremy Pope) during his vocal
solo at senior commencement. This core friction generates a fistful of the sparks
inside this coming-of-age tale.
Respectability is paramount at this school, so any suggestions of impropriety results in expulsion. There's very little wriggle room. Although there is no hard evidence, the angel-voiced Pharus inspires whispers of
homosexual proclivities. Refusing to confirm or deny his sexual leanings, Pharus
spars with Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper) about his behavior and
determination to lead the choir.
Choreographer Camille A. Brown employs step dancing, that percussive form of
dance that piles rhythmic structures one on top of the other to drive the emotional
undercurrents. The complex layers mirror the psychological mine-field
experienced by teenage boys.
This team of men forge a powerful unit of youthful questioning. When the group
begins to unravel, an old civil rights activist and friend of Headmaster Marrow
comes in as mediator. Ostensibly, the respected Mr. Pendleton (Austin
Pendleton) is popped into the script to teach “creative thinking” – but it feels like
he's there to represent America's liberal white, racial conscience.
Midway through the human chess match a discussion ensues about the role of
spirituals in the black community. Are coded messages woven throughout the
spirituals; do they warn about cruel slave owners, daily inequities, escape routes
or other guideposts? Regardless, the spirituals fulfill in a way that other songs do
not. Through the spirituals and dance, blood memories surface.
One of Ms. Brown’s inherent talents is allowing actors to find a way to make the
movement ooze out of their skin and become an organic extension of their
personalities. Step dancing snakes throughout the piece -- feet pound out catchy
beats syncopated against the voice. Even when sections of the choreography
align the actors in synchronized steps, each person moves in his own distinct
way. These vulnerable young mens' narratives are writ large through personalized movements that tap into the collective unconscious of the African
Intersecting storylines punch through the fragility of young men desperate to
conform yet yearning to find an individual path. There’s much to ponder in this
scrum for acknowledgement and echoes Pete Townshend’s lament “see me, feel
me, touch me, heal me.”
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis