Theater review

Every time the five young men who make up the central students within Oscar-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2012 play “Choir Boy” join together in harmony, their a cappella songs fill ACT’s theater in the round with a vibrancy that could make the orchestras and robust sound systems of standard musicals jealous. “Choir Boy,” in a coproduction from ACT and 5th Avenue (through Oct. 23), alternates between blowing the roof off the theater through song, under Jada Cato’s music direction, and pulling you into intimate moments aided by Kaja Dunn’s intimacy choreography. Still, despite being presented with individual aspects that are hard to find fault with, I struggle to understand why I left the theater utterly conflicted.

“Choir Boy,” directed here by Jamil Jude, is billed as a coming-of-age story, one that centers on the experience of Pharus Jonathan Young, a talented young Black man who finally takes the reins of Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys’ renowned choir during his senior year. The tenure follows an incident at the previous year’s commencement ceremony, where Young stopped in the middle of the school’s song (an unprecedented move) to turn an eye to a fellow member of the choir who was lobbing homophobic slurs at Young midsong. A tumultuous senior year follows as Young navigates wanting to be true to himself while within an institution that expects its all-male student body to be bold typeface, capital-M “Men.”

Even the set design, from scenic designer Tony Cisek, includes a stone hexagon hanging above the stage with all-caps words like “character,” “truth,” “integrity” and “honor” on each side. The pressures of what this prep school considers to be “manly” hang above these students at all times.

But what I found challenging about this play was exactly that, that this pressure extends to everyone in the choir, not just Young, despite the narrative focus on Young’s journey. The narrative watches as Young decides not to tell the headmaster why he paused midsong because a “Drew man” allows the man who wronged him the chance to confess. It follows as Young uses his power as leader of the choir to vote out the student who wronged him. It then watches as folks start to question whether Young did so to truly stand up for himself or to remove competition standing between Young and the unprecedented chance to sing the school song at his own commencement. At the center of this story is Young as he tries to carve out space to be himself within the school and the choir.

It’s no disrespect to a fantastic performance from Nicholas Japaul Bernard, who plays Young, and it’s perhaps a credit to Jude’s direction, but not long into “Choir Boy,” the journeys of Young’s fellow choir mates start to demand more attention than the narrative affords. 

Jude talks, in his director’s note and when we spoke last month, about how this play deals with this idea of creating space for Black boys to be “soft with one another,” or, in other words, to be vulnerable. Through Young, we’re introduced to the dangers and challenges of being vulnerable, and being honest about who he really is, at first through words and later through violence. But it’s in conjunction with the experiences of the other students that McCraney’s story really starts to show how a tradition that emphasizes being a man, one meant to create strength, has instead suppressed vulnerability.

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A religious student retreats from questioning his sexuality. A legacy student buries the pain of the passing of a parent. Another student worries about grades and the loss of a scholarship that would devastate his family. All of them lack a space to be open without fear of labels or judgment under the stone-carved values of Drew.

But then there’s the choir. Each student uses music as a conduit to spiritual and emotional release. Punctuated with the slam of a bench or the stomp of a foot through Juel D. Lane’s choreography, singing is used throughout the play to express joy and praise as well as pain and despair. In one moment, a student may sing a solo that lights up the room like a supernova only for them to later sing it through a clenched throat and held-back tears. An almost mournful rendition of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” rings out in the school showers — a stunning design by Cisek and lighting designer Andrew Smith — only to be disrupted (perhaps unintentionally) by Young entering and putting his own spin on the song.

A moment of vulnerability, disrupted.

And that’s what I kept coming back to — profound moments derailed by the need to get back to the central story and character. That’s not to say Young’s story was undeserving. Rather, McCraney’s play has so much to say about race, religion, sexuality, manhood and having room to be vulnerable that I found myself at a loss as the play ended. There’s an intimacy to this play that draws you in and the ease with which actors Bernard, Jarron A. Williams (Bobby Marrow), Donovan Mahannah (Junior Davis), Kyle Ward (Anthony Justin “AJ” James) and Brandon G. Stalling (David Heard) perform left me craving more time with these young men, especially those outside of Young. 

Loyalties shift, mistakes are made, feelings are hurt and the play zooms by before you have a chance to truly understand the impact of what everyone outside of Young learned during the year that passes onstage. But then again, to Jude’s point, young Black men are rarely afforded the chance to be vulnerable. Perhaps the longing to see more of these students’ true selves says more about what society in general is lacking than what may be missing within the play.

“Choir Boy”

By Tarell Alvin McCraney. Through Oct. 23; A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; masks required; $5-$89; 206-292-7676; acttheatre.org

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