‘Choir Boy’: Struggling to make boys into men

“Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” is performed by, from left, Isiah Reynolds, Dwayne P. Mitchell. Nigel Richards, Thoas Purvis Aaron Patterson, Jaimar Brown, and Antione Gray. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

BOSTON – They sing like angels, but like all teen-age boys, sometimes the devil is in them, even when they are tenderly invoking The Lord’s name in a hymn.

They are the young African-American men of the elite 50-year-old Charles R. Drew Preparatory School, and in “Choir Boy” their stories are told by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright who co-authored the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Moonlight,” and whose has had two of his other works performed locally to critical acclaim, the “Brothers/Sisters Plays” and “Wig Out!” at Company One.

At the very start of the Tony-nominated play, the sublime step-dances created for the production by Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White are front and center as the choir croons “Trust and Obey” under the musical direction of David Freeman Coleman. The eight-man group shows the amount of dedication and practice needed to perform such intricate, expressive but precise movement while also singing in complicated harmony, speaking to the same qualities it takes to succeed as a student at an elite prep school.

But at the same time, they are eight very different individuals struggling to find their own identity within the group, and sometimes finding the bonds they have formed as part of the group may be fraying.

“Choir Boy” was nominated for a Tony as a play, but the music is very much front and center, in gorgeous harmony by a host of heavenly voices singing such well-known hymns and spirituals as  “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “Motherless Chile.”

Isaiah Reynolds and Jaimar Brown in “Choir Boy.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Drew is a highly regimented boarding school – Students wear identical uniforms, must conform to an honor code – much like our prestigious service academies – and are expected personal lives as well as the classroom to remain eligible for activities such as choir, with frequent mandatory calls home.

Early on, a young, ambitious student named Pharus Young (Isaiah Reynolds) is called out by Headmaster Marrow (J. Jerome Rogers) for being distracted while performing the school’s song during the annual graduation ceremonies. The distraction came in the form of homophobic whispers uttered by his rival  Bobby Marrow (Malik Mitchell), a legacy student who also happens to be the nephew of Headmaster Marrow, who while happy with what the choir brings to the school is wary of trouble when Pharus hints at the problem.

When Pharus, as he long planned, becomes lead of the choir, he orchestrates another vote that gets Bobby tossed from the group, throwing it into turmoil.

The headmaster enlists a former white faculty member named Mr. Pendleton, allowing Richard Snee to once again exercise his considerable comedic chops, to oversee the group and his introduction with a flat-out offensive “joke” is a study in awkwardness, and it doesn’t really get much better from there.

Pharus has called out as gay since he was literally a young boy even afraid of visiting a black barbershop, a traditional place of refuge from racism and the outside world. Still, he denies – somewhat – being gay or engaging in any sexual activities.

As a gay black man, director Maurice Emmanuel Parent, one of the founders of the Front Porch Arts Collective, brings a unique perspective to the role of Pharus, as he outlined in an interview in the Boston Globe.  “I understand the unease of Pharus going through the world. I would look at how straight men walk and talk and do my best to imitate it.”

Parent said as a young black gay boy, not yet out of the closet but aware of his burgeoning sexuality, he was uncomfortable inhabiting spaces such as black churches and black barbershops that are supposed to be safe zones “in opposition to the racist systems of oppression in our society,” but that aren’t always welcoming to LGBTQ people.

A subplot involves Pharus and a former roommate named David Heard (Dwayne P. Mitchell), who yearns to be a pastor. Their relationship will prove to be a crucial plot twist.

Pharus also has a caring relationship and strong support from his roommate AJ James (Jaimar Brown), who accepts Pharus for who he is, without reservation.

There are moments when the narrative seems to lose its focus in favor of emphasizing certain themes, but those moments are few and far between.  McCraney has quite deliberately left open what the future will be for the group.

The power and the passion of the students in their quest for perfection in their chosen pursuit – and the mistakes they will make along the way – make for a mesmerizing 105 minutes.

Parents should be aware “Choir Boy” includes raw language and shower scenes which include partial nudity.

At one point, Mr. Pendleton asks the students to return with a song that was important to their parents and perform it. Bobby picks out New Edition’s “Boys to Men” and what ensures is not only a lovely rendition of the song, but words of wisdom to help guide the students along on their journey.

So we search for answers to our questions
Looking for answers
No answers but we’re taught a lesson every time
Through mistakes we’ve learned to gather wisdom…

With a hostile world waiting outside for them, they go forward in the important work of making boys into men.

Play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Music direction, David Freeman Coleman. Choreography, Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 19. Tickets start at $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com