Under the direction of Kent Gash, Steppenwolf’s first Chicago production of CHOIR BOY hits all the right notes. Steppenwolf member Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play is a harrowing and melodious story about Pharus, a young gay black man who relishes nothing more than his role as choirmaster at the prestigious Charles R. Drew Preparatory School. . Over the course of the play, Pharus navigates that classic teenage tension between his desire to be fully himself and his wish to be accepted among his peers. McCraney’s script illustrates this push-and-pull beautifully in a way that will resonate universally with audiences, but the story is also incredibly specific to Pharus and his classmates.
CHOIR BOY celebrates the experiences of young black men, because Charles R. Drew Preparatory School is exclusively their space. And notably the only white character on stage, the new professor Mr. Pendleton (William Dick, who strikes an interesting balance between grumpy and empathetic) feels like an outlier in this university space designed to promote black excellence and propel these young people men in their future. Arnel Sancianco’s set captures the sanctity and formality of the institution well – and the prep school setting is flanked by portraits of notable black men (it should be noted that former President Barack Obama has the most central portrait – a decision that was clearly intentional). Kara Harmon’s costumes also convey the formal atmosphere of the school – and she incorporates certain touches into each character’s costume. For example, Pharus’ uniform is almost always put together with precision, while his classmate and workaholic Bobby is often on stage with his tie askew.
CHOIR BOY opens with Pharus (Tyler Hardwick) singing a solo at the start for the class above him, only to be interrupted by distracting insults from Bobby (Gilbert Domally). The situation brings Pharus into the office of Director Marrow (The Shawn Banks), who demands to know why. Pharus is immediately torn between the desire to tell the truth and his wish not to denounce his classmate. This first scene becomes an embodiment of Pharus’ central conflict throughout the play, which then unfolds in a series of scenes as Pharus navigates his final year.
Not only does McCraney’s dialogue create emotional resonance and move the story along at a good pace, CHOIR BOY is also full of gorgeous spirituals. The choir music becomes an integral part of the narrative, as the characters often sing when they are at emotional crossroads. It’s a moving way to add more layers to the piece and allow the music to become a necessary part of the piece. Musical direction by Jermaine Hill and choreography by Byron Easley also ensure that each number unfolds beautifully.
Gash has also put together a stellar ensemble for CHOIR BOY with extremely capable actors and singers. Hardwick’s clarion voice and emotional honesty make him a natural candidate for Pharus. He brings Pharus’ flamboyance to the fore at many points in the play, but demonstrates that it’s a natural part of the character’s personality. It also strikes the right balance between Pharus’ more candid and demanding moments as choirmaster, as well as moments of inwardness and vulnerability. The latter are most evident in his interactions with his close friend and roommate AJ (Sheldon D. Brown). Hardwick and Brown have a relationship that truly embodies a deep friendship. In this way, CHOIR BOY also becomes a love letter to Pharus and AJ’s platonic friendship (which, oddly enough, has some thematic overlap with Rajiv Joseph’s KING JAMES from the start of the Steppnwolf season). Above all else, Pharus yearns to be seen for who he is – and AJ provides loving assurance that he does see that. Brown is a generous and moving performer, and the scenes he shares with Hardwick have a unique intimacy.
While I’ve often seen Domally in the roles of gentle, well-meaning men, he showcases his versatility as Bobby, who isn’t afraid to be a bully and a contrarian. Domally makes it apparent that Bobby is jealous of Pharus’ role as choirmaster; he delves into Bobby’s moments of outright bigotry and wonders if the school bows to Pharus without flinching, but he also makes it clear that some of the hate comes from a place of insecurity. Richard David is charming as shy classmate David, who has surprising moments of self-discovery and confidence as the play evolves. Samuel B. Jackson injects plenty of humor as Junior, who struggles with this classic high school choir problem – his voice changes and crackles! Thankfully, Jackson’s actual performance isn’t flimsy at all.
Hardwick, Domally, David, Brown and Jackson have truly amazing harmonies in CHOIR BOY. When they combine their five voices, the effect is absolutely chilling. Each of their characters goes on a separate emotional journey, but these actors come together like a real chorus when they sing. In particular, the “Rockin’ Jerusalem” sequence is breathtaking and embodies the power of music to convey emotions and mark moments of transition for both characters and audience.
CHOIR BOY is a beautiful tribute to adolescence, identity, aspiration and the human desire to be seen and understood. Steppenwolf’s production really hits home – and the stunning vocal arrangements and music are the icing on the cake for what is already a brilliant and deeply moving piece.
CHOIR BOY plays at the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s Downstairs Theater, 1650 North Halsted, until July 24, 2022. Tickets are between $20 and $98.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow