There are endless reasons to prioritize experiencing Portland Center Stage’s production of Choir Boy. It strikes me that not all of them can be put into words.
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has managed to create something with this work that operates on the most soulful level, like the powerful spirituals and folk songs that have held up Black Americans, and many others, for centuries. That music is a character in the play, and the thing that binds characters who don’t understand each other and don’t even want to. The music is the play and the play is the music, moving us deeper than what can be expressed any other way, reconciling what we are not yet able to reconcile.
The play’s setting is a preparatory school whose aim is to produce “strong, ethical Black men”—a setting resonant of similar efforts to lift up the best and brightest among Black men, those whom W.E.B. DuBois termed the “talented tenth,” most capable of rising in a culture constructed to oppress them. But rising among the oppressed also can involve aspects of privilege and oppression; not every student in this aspirational space enters with the same capacity to succeed by the terms of the norms that define strength and ethics and talent in this particular culture.
The play’s conflicts revolve around Pharus, a queer student whose undeniable talent fuels his aspirations to lead the school’s vaunted choir. One can assume that Pharus is not the only queer student enrolled in this school, but he isn’t hiding the way others presumably are. That is only partly because he is effeminate: What makes Pharus challenging is also that he has the inclination and capacity to fight (as he must) for ways to show up as himself, including in spaces where he doesn’t obviously fit.
Skills like that are the stuff of greatness, perhaps precisely because they challenge the norms that constrain, even in an institution that exists to nurture the rise of strong, ethical Black men. There are power dynamics in every culture, including a marginalized one, and yet answers for how to rise are contained in the very music that moves and drives the school and its vaunted musicians. To whom does this music belong? What is its message? Can it be carried—can it best be carried—by a queer student who doesn’t fit, and yet does?
You might shiver listening to Isaiah Reynolds as Pharus sing “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on” in his lyrical tenor—especially joined by a group of classmates that include his primary taunter, Bobby (Luther Brooks IV), a legacy student and nephew of the school’s headmaster (Don Kenneth Mason). And “Trust and Obey” carries new resonance in the context of the complexities depicted here. Might the outsider be the best to lead this group of young men toward the promised land? And isn’t he a necessary part of this community, whether or not he is leading?
The institution won’t find the answers easily, despite Pharus’s unaccountable courage, the headmaster’s genuine efforts to lead ethically, and the interventions of a well-meaning older white ally (Kevin C. Loomis) with solid civil rights credentials who is brought in to guide the students through their conflicts. The struggles here are the human struggles to transcend our blindness, to tune our ears so that “I hear rockin’ in the land . . . church getting higher in Jerusalem, ringin’ them bells . . . “ How can we prime ourselves to hear what we are not yet ready to hear?
Pharus’s struggles and those of the other young men, fighting to keep their scholarships, or to understand where they fit, are the focus of the action. But they are really the container for a more universal exploration, contained in the bodies of Black men harmonizing and moving in step with the oldest and yet still current music that has carried and fueled their freedom fights—and the fights of all who would join them—for hundreds of years.
Under the able direction of Chip Miller and music direction of DeReau K. Farrar, a capable and generous cast takes us on a spiritual journey of longing and aspiration and possible evolution beyond our current conceptions of what makes a person, including but certainly not limited to a Black man, strong and ethical. Personally, I would never miss a production of this beautiful work of theater and mystery by McCraney—and you shouldn’t miss this one.
Portland Center Stage’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” continues through May 14 on the U.S. Bamk Mainstage of The Armory. Ticket and schedule information here.