Pharus (Jeremy Pope) is the bright and confident lead singer in the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys’ prestigious choir. He has a quick, endearing smile, and he makes little effort to temper his flamboyant body language. A few minutes into Choir Boy, and a few verses into Pharus’ solo at the school’s commencement, another signer, Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson), interrupts him: “This faggot ass Nigga.” He freezes. Bobby is the headmaster’s nephew, Drew royalty, while Pharus is there on scholarship. And he refuses to rat out a peer. The incident augurs an unsteady senior year for Pharus.
The Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys is the kind of place where students dress in suits and unironically refer to themselves as “Drew men.” They are the elite in embryo. Relationships with women are forbidden, as are relationships with men. In fact, we get the sense that Pharus would have long been booted from the school were he not such a good singer. The administration tolerates him with a kind of anxious bemusement; his peers range from silent acceptance to open hostility. Presenting a staunch front, Pharus defends himself from constant assault with an acid tongue and an unwavering cockiness. When Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper), who didn’t hear Bobby’s comment, asks if something got caught in his throat, he answers, “This the Lord’s passageway, let no follicle formed against me prosper.”
But Pharus, of course, is profoundly lonely, loneliness itself the subject of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s sweet, simple, and moving Broadway debut. Gay or straight, these kids are all deprived of love, of nurture, mimicking a manhood they have not yet reached and lashing as a cover for vulnerability; stern-faced Bobby usually looks like he is moments away from either punching or crying. In Choir Boy‘s most devastating scenes, a gaggle of boys assemble onstage to call home—a once-a-week privilege—and are met for the most part with verbal abuse and indifference. “You coming, right?” Pharus asks into the phone, pausing before a deflated follow-up: “Right. You don’t have to be here to know I graduated.” The absence of parents’ voices only accentuates their isolation, and by the end of the play, I at least felt a strong desire to give each and every one a hug, bullies and bullied alike.
Choir Boy runs through March 10th at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. 254 W. 54th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 45 minutes. No intermission.