SpeakEasy Stage Company presents ‘Choir Boy’
Coming of age story set in an all-black prep school
In the small society of an eight-member chorus at an elite black prep school for boys, sublime vocal harmony does not conceal discord. At the 49th annual assembly of the Charles R. Drew Prep School, as choir leader Pharus Young, a closeted gay youth, sings a solo backed by the chorus, he is disrupted by a knowing sneer from one of the members, an insult that only he can hear.
True to the Drew code of not blaming others, Pharus endures a scolding by the headmaster, and worse, threats of probation and loss of his role — which for Pharus, has been a rare source of pride at the school, his refuge from a world that has disdained him as a misfit.
Through Oct. 12, SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the New England premiere of the musical coming-of-age story “Choir Boy,” in the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston’s South End. The Broadway production of “Choir Boy” won 2019 Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Sound Design and Outstanding Music, respectively.
The story unfolds through gospel, spiritual and R&B music as well as the drill-like propulsion of step, a movement tradition devised by South African miners, adopted by Historically Black Colleges & Universities and popularized by Step Afrika! and Stomp productions.
Its musical repertoire includes “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “Motherless Chile” as well as less familiar spirituals, performed with power and skill both in a percussive tempo and in classical a capella renderings by eight young actors — Isaiah Reynolds as Pharus, Jaimar Brown as his roommate Anthony, along with Antione Gray, Dwayne P. Mitchell, Malik Mitchell, Aaron Patterson, Thomas Purvis and Nigel Richards.
Drawing on African American traditions of church, music and movement, the staging also adds, unnecessarily, occasional overlays of recordings by such icons as Martin Luther King, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.
The eight young performers drive the show, both in their charged interactions and in their ensemble performances.
The production showcases the bench strength of performing arts talent here in Boston. Director Maurice Emmanuel Parent is an accomplished actor and also co-founder and executive director of Front Porch Arts Collective, a new black-led theater company committed to advancing racial equity in Boston through theater. The show’s musical director, David Freeman Coleman, is choral director at the Dana Hall School, a director of the Millennium Gospel Choir and director of the 225-voice Third Day Gospel Choir at Tufts University. Choreographers are Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White, on the faculty of Boston Conservatory at Berklee, where Odetoyinbo earned an MFA.
The first-rate staging makes the most of parallels between the drill-like musical formations and the rigid daily rules of the school, such as scheduled five-minute intervals to call home.
A terrific set by Baron Pugh echoes the shifting grid formations of the choreography with its centerpiece, a cross, the traditional ethical symbol associated with a Christian prep school.
Sensitive lighting by Oliver Wason enables actors to express without words fraught inner states and vulnerability not shown in their behavior.
Boston Arts Academy graduate Malik Mitchell excels as the sullen Bobby, a puzzling character who is vindictive without apparent cause and a privileged nephew of the headmaster. His face becomes a portrait of pain as he sings “Motherless Chile.”
Rounding out the 10-member cast are J. Jerome Rogers and Richard Snee, who portray two odd grown-ups. As Headmaster Marrow, Rogers is uncommitted in his performance of a figure with no palpable authority. Equally unconvincing is Snee as a white humanities scholar drafted to engage the chorus in conflict resolution.
SpeakEasy’s excellent program booklet includes an essay by Coleman, “On the Negro Spiritual,” and an interview by dramaturg Rosalind Bevan with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Reflecting on his own Pharus-like youth, McCraney says, “I was growing up black and queer in the South, and looking to be part of a community … I still remember going to high school and how terrifying it was to try to be open and myself and excel in all the ways I wanted to excel.”
Boston Conservatory graduate Isaiah Reynolds plays Pharus, who has a lot to lose, including his scholarship, but mostly, a sense of his place in the world. Physically smaller than the other boys, his Pharus expresses his pent-up aggression by challenging chorus mates and teachers on matters of principle or tradition, arguing, for example, that spirituals were not in fact coded guides for escaped slaves. Early in the run, he plays Pharus as mannered, preening and pouting, not yet a character that elicits audience empathy.
Pharus only lets down his guard with his roommate, the athletic and good-natured Anthony, rendered with compelling naturalness by Jaimar Brown. Anthony, played persuasively by Brown, guides Pharus into a rapport that grows from curiosity to mutual respect and on to understanding, compassion and a first experience of friendship.