Through Feb. 22
1501 14th St., N.W.
It begins with a hissed gay slur.
Pharus Young, the central character in out playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy,” is living his finest hour — he’s singing his prestigious prep school’s anthem at commencement ceremony. But his glowing moment abruptly ends when a fellow student and choir member insults him from the audience, prompting Pharus to lose concentration and blow his solo performance.
While Pharus refuses to name his offender, maintaining that squealing would be a breach of the fictional Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys’ honor code, the confident and clearly gay junior doesn’t take the affront lying down. As selected leader of the school’s choir, Pharus boots Bobby, the culprit, from the elite singing group — an especially bold move since Bobby is a legacy student and the current head master’s nephew at a school where most of the African-America student body — including Pharus — is on scholarship. These unpleasant tit-for-tat slights position Pharus and Bobby as enemies for the following school year.
School-set plays (“The Children’s Hour,” “The History Boys,” etc.) typically present a metaphor for the larger outside world. “Choir Boy,” now at Studio Theatre, does the same but with a black perspective. It prompts a conversation about masculinity and queerness in both African-American community and the church.
Playwright McCraney splendidly uses spirituals sung by the five-man choir to bring together his play’s many and sometimes meandering subplots. Sung beautifully, these old songs are performed a cappella and infused with new meanings. And out, African-American director Kent Gash’s vibrant and elegant staging gives new interpretation to the music too. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is performed in evocatively lit, steamy showers by a mostly naked cast adding an element of vulnerability not present otherwise.
When dressed, the characters are uniformed in standard issue prep wear: Oxford shirts, khakis, navy blazers and striped ties. But uniforms and a love for singing is where their similarities end. As Pharus, Jelani Alladin exudes both confidence and a sense of embarrassment surrounding his sexuality. He’s an explosion of witty repartee and florid mannerisms, whereas Keith Antone’s angry and entitled Bobby, who recently lost his mother, is consistently mean and generally miserable.
Reactions to Pharus’ perceived homosexuality range from Bobby’s overt hostility to the acceptance demonstrated by AJ, Pharus’ jock roommate. In a shower scene, Pharus admires AJ’s impressive body. Comfortably straight AJ (the excellent Jaysen Wright) makes it clear that he’s into women. When Pharus replies that he’s saving himself for Jesus, AJ responds, “I don’t think Jesus interested.” It’s a quiet scene filled with caring and humor.
Jonathan Burke plays uptight David, the most religious of the students who’s dealing with bad grades and a stern father at home. Eric Lockley adds humor as Junior, Bobby’s faithful sidekick. Rounding out the cast are Marty Austin Lamar as the harried headmaster and Alan Wade who plays Mr. Pendleton, a square, but well-meaning, white teacher who knows nothing about music but is named choir director for his peace-keeping skills.
Jason Sherwood’s set — a compact rotunda echoing the classical architectural elements associated with an established prep school — seamlessly morphs from dorm room to showers and auditorium to classroom. Along the dome’s base hang portraits of subjects taken from the pantheon of great black men (including Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali and Barak Obama).
McCraney is best known for his acclaimed, autobiographical trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays”: “The Brothers Size,” “In the Red and Brown Water” and “Marcus: Or the Secret of Sweet,” all of which have been performed at Studio. While “Choir Boy” continues the playwright’s fusion of street slang and lyrical prose, it’s more accessible than the trilogy. And though not biographical, this account of gay youth figuring out how to be a whole and self-accepting gay man is told with undeniable insight.