Charles E. Wallace, Joshua Boone, and Nicholas L. Ashe. (Photo by Greg Mooney)

By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

You’ll search far and wide to find a more powerful, passionate, and eloquent piece of pure theatre this season than Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy,” playing at the Alliance Theatre’s intimate Hertz Stage through Oct. 13.  It pretty much knocked me out.

Since winning the 2008 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition with “In the Red and Brown Water,” Mr. McCraney’s rise as a playwright of international importance has been meteoric.  On opening night Artistic Director Susan Booth announced that he was just named a MacArthur Fellowship honoree, one of 24 exceptional, creative individuals; he was  cited for his brilliant use of drama in the portrayal of urban communities.  Sometimes called the “genius” awards, they also come with a very generous stipend.  Mr. McCraney is 32 years old.

“Choir Boy” is a co-production with the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it had its premiere this past summer.  The play comes to us with the original director (Trip Cullman), music and vocal arrangements director (Jason Michael Webb), and star (Jeremy Pope as Pharus Jonathan Young).  It’s only been seen in New York and London—and now Atlanta.  Oh yes, Nicholas L. Ashe, who plays Junior Davis in the seven member cast, is also from the MTC production.

The setting is the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, “dedicated to the creation of strong, ethical, African-American men,” says the program.  We’re in a Southern city, probably Atlanta.  Private schools for boys, certainly in fiction, often seem to be powder kegs of testosterone, idealism, and sublimation, from “A Separate Peace” to “Good Boys and True.”

Pharus is the leader of the choir; he is gay, and quite effeminate; he is also very smart and fearless.  When humiliated by Bobby (Joshua Boone), Pharus, very verbally gifted, proceeds to play a sort of cobra and mongoose game with him (Pharus is the mongoose, who usually wins) and kicks Bobby out of the choir.

“Choir Boy’s” secret weapon is the music:  beautiful hymns and spirituals, segments of which are used to underscore themes and moments of the play.  Please don’t misunderstand; this is not a musical, but a play which uses music—beautifully.  These young men, all hugely talented, can sing as well as act.  Those not yet mentioned are Caleb Eberhardt (David) and John Stewart (Anthony).  The two grown-ups in the cast are Charles E. Wallace (the headmaster) and Scott Robertson (Mr. Pendleton).

I cannot convey to you the power and subtlety that this 100-minute play exhibits.  I can tell you that you could have heard a pin drop on opening night; the precision, emotion, and pathos are so breathtaking that the eyes well; every moment rings true.  The performances are all first-rate:  Caleb Eberhardt’s portrayal of a ministerial student; John Stewart as Pharus’ good-hearted roommate; and Jeremy Pope’s heartbreaking portrayal of Pharus.  To see this handsome, brilliant young man apologizing for his existence is devastating.

There is a little nudity and a bit of colorful language—our PG-13 alert.

The language of playwright McCraney is a marvel:  It dips and soars, and carries you along, from young guys’ locker room talk to lyrical music that reminds you just a bit of Dr. King at his best.  I don’t wonder that Mr. McCraney has won awards; I merely stand in awe of how many are yet to come.  “Choir Boy” is close to perfection; do not miss it.

For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.