That joyful noise you hear arising from the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is the mellifluous tenor of Jeremy Pope, the golden-voiced actor making his Broadway debut in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s tender coming-of-age drama Choir Boy.
You might remember Pope from Choir Boy’s 2013 off-Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage II; thankfully, he’s returned—along with a few other original cast members, including amiable Tony-winner Chuck Cooper (as a no-nonsense headmaster) and a wonderfully rumpled Austin Pendleton (as a wonderfully rumpled professor named Mr. Pendleton)—to lead McCraney’s Choir once more.
When we first meet the magnetic Pope, as Pharus, the bright-eyed leader of the gospel choir at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, he’s entreating us to “Trust and Obey”—the school song. Behind him, a less-than-Christian fellow choir member is calling him ungodly names under a lyric about walking with the Lord in the light of His Word. Pharus’ concentration cracks, but his voice doesn’t break. “I’ve never missed a key of G since I was 3,” he says later.
McCraney has endowed Pharus with a war chest full of wisecracks, an arsenal of verbal armor to guard against homophobic high school classmates and hypercritical educators. For instance, his quip to Headmaster Marrow (Cooper), whose nephew Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson) was kicked out of the choir: “Oh he was voted off the Island. We serve a democratic Lord in this house.” Or what he calls “locker room talk”—teasing his roommate, AJ (John Clay III), about the size of his, ahem, you know: “This something out the prehistoric times. Need to be tagged and released back to the wild.” (Which of course gets a larger-than-necessary laugh simply because of the phrase “locker room talk.”)
Not that Pharus doesn’t have depth: Those sassy, rapid-fire quips belie a profoundly wounded, insecure heart—like that of any teenager, gay, straight, or otherwise. (“Every time I turn around there is something that I have done or undone that has me called into question,” Pharus laments to the headmaster.) But as far as portraits of young gay men coming to terms with their sexuality, McCraney has dug deeper, and to greater effect: most recently with Moonlight, 2016’s Academy Award–winning Best Picture, based on his script In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (he shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar with the film’s director, Barry Jenkins); and most notably with the Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, the third play (after The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water) in his bayou-set, mythology-laden Brother/Sister Plays trilogy.
But oh—the songs! Ranging from the sepulchral spiritual “Motherless Child” to the Civil Rights–era folk anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” (which has been performed by artists as varied as Mavis Staples and Bruce Springsteen), the choral music is rich and rousing. And the choreography—kinetic, forceful movement by Camille A. Brown (Once on This Island)—positively electric. Praise be!
Choir Boy opened Jan. 8 and runs through Feb. 24, 2019, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Tickets and information: choirboybroadway.com