Choir Boy

“Sissy.”
"Faggot."
"Nigger."
Full-frontal nudity times five.
Ready to have some buttons pushed?

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney doesn't pull punches in Choir Boy, the provocative, sensitive, and deeply satisfying play having its West Coast premiere this month at Marin Theatre Company. Set in an exclusive  prep school for boys, McCraney deftly manages to weigh in on matters of race, class, homophobia, identity, friendship, manhood, and a whole lot more within 100 minutes.

Somewhat miraculously he does so in swift, fleeting strokes which cut quickly to the bone and then move on. McCraney's pace and the play's complete lack of didacticism reveal a confidence in his material and characters that borders on breathtaking, and Marin Theatre Company has assembled a perfect cast to bring it vividly alive. Choir Boy revolves around Pharus Young (Jelandi Alladin), a young man who is brash, smart, supremely talented, and gay. Pharus asserts himself with a quick mouth, a limp wrist, and a big, clear voice. He knows he doesn't fit in, but he's sharp enough to make things fit for him.

Or at least he's trying to, until he becomes a target for a schoolmate's anger and insecurity. Pharus leads the school's choir, a quintet comprised of standard high school types: the jock, the entitled slacker, the nerdy religious kid, and the hanger-on. How these young men compete and conflict with each other within the small group allows McCraney to bounce the play's themes off of them, creating multiple perspectives and reactions to the plot while forming a larger vision of what it's like to be in each one's shoes. That may sound like a coming-of-age story, and to some extent Choir Boy certainly is, but McCraney's vision is larger, or perhaps goes deeper: Choir Boy provokes as much as it affirms, and presents a view of African-American males rarely seen in the American cultural landscape.

While the play isn't a musical it seamlessly integrates music as a means of defining its characters their lives. A debate about the purpose of spirituals in the 19th Century South sits comfortably alongside the use of beatboxing and a New Edition song. Watching five nude men sing "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" both intensifies and demystifies the experience -- a deliberately inserted charge, like some of the play's language, that prompts one to check their response. Kent Gash directs one of the best acting ensembles I've seen on any Bay Area stage recently: joining Alladin in the choir are Rotimi Agbabiaka, Forest Van Dyke, Jaysen Wright and Dimitri Woods. Ken Robinson is the school's headmaster, and Charles Shaw Robinson plays a retired teacher summoned to help the choir regain its equilibrium.

Photo by Kevin Berne.