Have you ever wondered what it would be like to win a MacArthur genius grant? I mean, aside from the fact that a sweet stipend would come to you for five years, no questions asked, no forms to be filed, no annual review. How would the people around you — your own world — react to you? Would your work be accepted more easily? Be looked at more critically? Would your kids be more likely to listen to you, or your mom, spouse, or significant other grouse less about the mess you left in the kitchen? Would you be motivated to work harder? Or would you have the same feet of clay you walked in with last week?
If you got the chance, you might ask playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney these questions for, in 2013, he was tapped to join the exclusive MacArthur fraternity. McCraney’s “Choir Boy” debuted in London prior to his receiving the award. The current iteration at the Geffen features several actors from the subsequent Manhattan Theatre Club production.
Director Trip Cullman’s staging is stunning. Scenic designer David Zinn’s take on the Drew Prep School for Boys is eye catching and sufficiently detailed to describe location and character, yet abstract enough to be an artwork itself, and flexible enough for the many quick scene changes in a script that feels more like it is paced for television or a movie than a stage play. More about that further on. Drew Prep is a boarding school for black, mostly scholarship, boys who wear anachronistic jacket-and-tie uniforms. They, or their parents, have aspirations for their higher education, and headmaster Marrow (Michael A. Shepperd) believes the route to college is rigidly straight and narrow, and best driven by the fear of god.
If you have ever driven carpool to an all-boys school — white, black, brown or probably polka-dotted — you will recognize the boisterous energy, the physicality, the ongoing testosterone-driven combativeness endemic to the species. Cullman and his cast have it down to a T. Never are you watching actors playing at being boys. Pharus is the precocious senior, gifted both intellectually and musically, who is grappling with his sexual orientation, but not shy to use his talents to maintain his status with the other boys. Despite faltering in his performance of the school song because of an offstage taunt during the previous year’s graduation, he is appointed leader of the choir. He may not be fully out of the closet, but he does not suppress his sometimes flagrant gestures. His mantra might be “the best defense is a good offense.”
Just as true as the combativeness of adolescence is the passion when kids’ interests are engaged. The one thing these boys have in common is a love of singing. Choir is a major activity at Drew; the battle lines dissolve when there is a chance to sing. Luckily for us, they come together frequently mostly in arrangements of spirituals by Jason Michael Webb. Their a cappella tones are gorgeous and spirited. The vitality rings very true.
Where McCraney seems to get off track is in the brevity of the scenes and the number of undeveloped sub-plots. Complexity becomes confusion and a 95-minute play feels dragged out. In a television series, characters are developed over a series of episodes, and these quick cuts are not so bewildering. After the intermission, less playing of “Choir Boy” audience members were overheard asking one another, “What happened when …” and “Did you get …” Here is an example: Mr. Pendleton (Leonard Kelly-Young), an older white man, is suddenly brought in to teach an abstruse class in critical thinking. If he supposedly marched with Dr. King, why does he use a racial slur? Why, if he is not musical, does he then get tapped to be the faculty in charge of the choir? I can only guess that someone like him was a figure in McCraney’s own experience. We as an audience, however, need a little help here.
By and large Tarell Alvin McCraney gets it right. “Choir Boy” is poignant and entertaining. A MacArthur grant is not a lifetime achievement award. It is designed to give gifted and promising talents the freedom to think and further develop. It will be interesting to watch McCraney’s further development.