Tarell Alvin McCraney has a way of making stories sing. With his Oscar-winning Moonlight, adapted by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins from his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, wider cinematic audiences learned what regional and Off-Broadway theatre audiences have known about the writer’s gift for painting nuanced portraits. Now, Broadway audiences are about to get in on the action because his upcoming Choir Boy (which begins previews December 12) is no exception.
Having bowed on Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway Stage II in 2013, the play has evolved since that American premiere, though some of its cast members—including Jeremy Pope who plays the Boy at the center—remain the same.
Pope plays Pharus, a student at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, an institution committed to building "strong, ethical black men.” Pharus has been waiting for his senior year, when he can finally lead the school’s prestigious choir, but not everyone feels he’s the appropriate choice because of his sexuality. Like Moonlight, Choir Boy centers on the story of a young gay black man and a battle between identity and community.
“It was important at the time of creating Choir Boy to really figure out how one distinguishes one’s own voice and one’s own instincts inside of a community,” says McCraney, “[one] that you want to be a part of that you trust and love. How does one still try to remain an individual? That was always the impulse, and that question is getting even more nuanced now."
At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, this cast is forming its own community. The cast boasts seven Broadway debuts out of the nine choir boys (Nicholas L. Ashe, Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, Marcus Gladney, J. Quinton Johnson, and Pope) and theatre veterans Austin Pendleton as their teacher and Chuck Cooper as their headmaster.
As the ensemble finds their collective voice—after all, they will be singing spirituals and hymns—McCraney’s is the one that guides them. “Just to hear his childhood stories and where he came from and built this structure of a man whose gift, I believe, is to inspire and to use his powerful words...” says Pope. “He’s incorporated spirituals—which we growing up in the black church grew up with—but to tie it into scenes where now is the language that Tarell wanted to use is kind of magnificent.”
Choir Boy plays at the Samuel J. Friedman (261 W 47th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue) in a limited engagement run, with previews from December 12, an opening night set for January 8, and closing scheduled for February 17, 2019.