The playwright behind ‘Moonlight’ makes a timely Broadway debut with ‘Choir Boy’
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s show is a welcome vehicle for thinking about anti-queer bigotry in the age of Kevin Hart
What an auspicious bit of timing for Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright behind Moonlight, who made his Broadway debut Tuesday night with Choir Boy.
The play, which focuses on homophobia at an all-black prep school for boys, opens amid a public debate over comedian Kevin Hart, who withdrew from hosting the Oscars after being criticized for past homophobic remarks on social media and in his stand-up routines.
In his Seriously Funny special from 2010, for example, Hart remarked, “One of my biggest fears is my son growing up and being gay. … Every kid has a gay moment, and when it happens, you gotta nip it in the bud. You gotta stop it.” The bit continues with Hart freaking out because his son was dancing with another boy. In a now-deleted tweet from 2011, Hart wrote, “Yo if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that’s gay.’ ”
Even though Choir Boy first ran off-Broadway in 2013, its themes and characters could have been pulled directly from a Twitter conversation about Hart’s demeaning jokes and what they mean to queer black people in particular.
The play follows Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope) through his senior year at the fictional Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, where he’s been tapped to lead the school’s choir. Pharus is gloriously swishy, self-aware and unapologetic. Most of the choirboys have no problem with this, except for Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson), a big, menacing bully, full of his own insecurities. Bobby makes it his mission to make Pharus’ life hell and rarely misses an opportunity to express his disgust with Pharus’ sexual orientation. When he’s punished by his uncle, Headmaster Marrow, Bobby seethes and develops a plan to remove Pharus as choir lead.
Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper) has his own discomfort. He understands that Pharus can’t do anything about his sexual orientation, but could he please try to avoid reminding everyone of it?
“Tighten up!” Marrow tells Pharus as he adjusts his limp wrist. “… All men hold some things in. See, your private life … well, those are private. Don’t let it all out. Keep ’em guessing.”
Meanwhile, the boys of Charles R. Drew are challenged by Pharus’ presence in different ways. They almost seem to envy his ability to wear his heart on his sleeve when so much of what it means to be a Drew Man is wrapped up in sporting a stiff upper lip and a discernible love for Jesus. Those expectations clash with normal teenage hormones, and in the case of Pharus and another boy, the results are violent and disastrous.
The one place where the boys are encouraged to be open and expressive is choir. It’s an emotional balm for them all, but especially Pharus. The play is peppered with stunning a cappella interludes and further punctuated with stepping, courtesy of movement choreographer Camille A. Brown.
McCraney excels at weaving pop culture motifs through classic storytelling frameworks to create plays that feel accessible and sophisticated at the same time. First staged in 2008, his Wig Out! was a romantic, practically Shakespearean tragedy set in the New York drag ball scene. In many ways, it was a theatrical predecessor to Pose. Choir Boy includes a reference to Kanye West in the Oval Office that was clearly pulled from 2018, but Charles R. Drew Prep, and the play as a whole, is clearly an allegory for Morehouse College, the most well-known single-sex historically black college or university for men.
Choir Boy offers a glimpse into how institutions like Morehouse, and their traditions for turning out an archetypal Morehouse Man, can be stifling for anyone who doesn’t fit the picture of what that man should be. For instance, he should most certainly be straight and cisgender, as evidenced by Morehouse’s 2009 decision to institute an “appropriate attire policy” that banned male students from wearing high heels, dresses, makeup or carrying purses.
There is no more iconic Morehouse Man than Martin Luther King Jr. The obvious question is how an institution that produced the most well-known civil rights crusader of the 20th century can be so hostile to another targeted group: queer Morehouse students.
McCraney is subtle but sharp. The setting for Choir Boy is named for a black physician whose research was instrumental in creating blood banks that could aid in lifesaving transfusions. But Drew resigned in protest from his post with the American Red Cross because it insisted on segregating blood supply according to race, even though there was no scientific basis for the decision.
There is a long history of anti-gay discrimination pertaining to blood donation too. In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally overturned a 30-year ban that prohibited gay men from donating blood. Its new rule is only marginally better: It stipulates that gay men can only give blood if they haven’t had sex with another man in the last 12 months.
The past couple of years have been marked by an explosion of black queer visibility, from Moonlight winning the Academy Award for best picture to Janelle Monáe coming out as pansexual to Lena Waithe sporting a cape fashioned after the pride flag to the Met Gala after winning a history-making Emmy for an episode of Master of None that told her coming-out story. This year’s Golden Globes red carpet was resplendent with outrageous fabulousness.
— Raquel Willis (@RaquelWillis_) January 7, 2019
Tonight’s @goldenglobes lewk. Spring is coming children!
Wearing custom couture by @RandiRahm
Iconic Gardenia Lapel Pins and Ballerina Ring by @OscarHeymanBros
Shoes by @gucci
— Billy Porter (@theebillyporter) January 7, 2019
— theGrio.com (@theGrio) January 7, 2019
And yet for every period of advancement, there is backlash and retrenchment.
In Choir Boy, this is embodied by Bobby. He’s straight. He’s a mediocre student. He’s a legacy student, a fact he never fails to wave in the face of students who are on scholarship. Bobby’s father is the headmaster’s brother. And yet he feels victimized by Headmaster Marrow’s attempts to maintain some sort of meritocracy at Drew, especially if it means he’s required to stifle his disgust for Pharus.
“My daddy say they used to let you get away with a lil bit because they know how hard it is to be a black man out there. Now, everything got to be watched, gotta be careful, gotta be cordial. Don’t say nothing, don’t say that word, don’t look like that,” Bobby says as he’s complaining to a friend about Pharus. “… They changing s— for him, changing us for him, and he getting brave. He ain’t even trying to hide that s— no more!”
Similarly, comedians such as Hart and Dave Chappelle have been dismissive of fans who challenge casual anti-queer bigotry in their comedy. In Chappelle’s Equanimity special for Netflix, he insists on using the slur “tranny” even after trans people publicly objected to it in previous sets. Hart and Chappelle are not so different from Bobby, in that what seems to bother all of them most is a reshuffling of the social order that makes previously acceptable behavior now unacceptable.
In the world he’s imagined on stage, McCraney could have easily created a situation in which Bobby and men like him receive some satisfying comeuppance for their bullying, for their hollow claims to victimization, for their unwillingness to respect the humanity of their brethren. But he chooses not to. That’s the power and the pain of Choir Boy: It shows us a world stumbling toward justice and not quite reaching it.
Choir Boy is currently running at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York.