‘Choir Boy’ Provides Fresh Take on the Familiar Coming of Age Tale

  • Bill Carmichael, as Mr. Pendleton, plays a classroom scene with Will T. Travis, as Pharus Young, middle, and Claxton Rabb, as David Heard, right, as director Jarvis Green observes at left, during rehearsal in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., Wednesday, November 2, 2016. Choir Boy was written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, known for his Brother / Sister Trilogy, and the new film Moonlight based on his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The JAG Productions Producing Artistic Director Jarvis Green watches a scene of Choir Boy during technical rehearsal at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt. Wednesday, November 2, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Claxton Rabb, as David Heard, rehearses a musical number with the JAG Productions cast of Choir Boy at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., Wednesday, November 2, 2016. The play opens November 3. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/3/2016 12:05:06 AM

In the play Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney, set in a Southern prep school for young African-American men, its protagonist, Pharus Young, is something of an outlier.

At an age when many students are just trying to blend in, get by, and get out unscathed, Young is unabashedly intellectual and ambitious, and preternaturally self-assured. And he’s attained the much-sought-after position of head of the school choir, a beloved, venerable institution.

He’s also gay, which, in a conservative place like the Charles R. Drew Prep School, can be problematic.

While Young doesn’t always make a point of being gay, he doesn’t hide it either, and sometimes he mocks the school’s “don’t ask; don’t tell” climate by trotting out stereotypes of gay behavior, which test the civility and tolerance of the school’s administration and some students who are openly hostile. “Pharus, your wrist!” the headmaster barks at one point.

Choir Boy, which opens this evening in a preview performance at 7:30 at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, runs through Nov. 20. Opening Night is on Saturday.

The play is a co-production between ArtisTree Community Arts Center and Gallery in Pomfret, and JAG Productions, which is the creation of director and actor Jarvis Antonio Green, who has been seen previously in Northern Stage productions of Clyburne Park, Our Town and 12 Angry Men.

This is only the fourth production of the play nationally since it premiered in New York in 2013, Green said in an interview in White River Junction.

The cast includes five younger actors from the New York area who play the students, and two theater veterans who have performed on Broadway and throughout the country: Erick Pinnick, who plays Headmaster Marrow, and Bill Carmichael, who plays a teacher, Mr. Pendleton. Green said he auditioned about 300 actors, looking for strong actor-singers.

Green, who has lived in Woodstock since 2011, with trips outside the state for acting jobs, grew up in Anderson, S.C.

He was previously the director of theatre arts at ArtisTree. Because this is JAG’s first production, Green wanted to stage a play that was both new to Upper Valley audiences, and had real bite and power.

“I read the play and couldn’t put it down,” Green said. “It’s a coming of age story. We’ve seen that before, but this is a new take.”

McRaney, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama and is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, is a young playwright in his 30s whose work has been consistently praised for its originality and for telling stories about African-American life that have been, until relatively recently, unseen in American theater.

He is also the screenwriter of the recently released film Moonlight, about a young boy growing up in Miami in very difficult circumstances, much like McRaney himself. The film, which appeared at both the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, has received glowing reviews in such publications as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Slate and the Los Angeles Times.

“The actors coming in are able to sink their teeth in the material because that’s who they are. How often do we get to do material that’s written for us?” Green said.

In a series of scenes at a recent rehearsal, Young (played by Will T. Travis), is on the receiving end of racial and homophobic epithets lobbed at him by his rival for head of choir, a student named Bobby Marrow (played by John Henry Carter V). Bobby, it turns out, is also the headmaster’s nephew, which leads to plenty of confrontation among Pharus, Bobby and the headmaster.

The dialogue is sharp, funny, poignant and never predictable. McRaney also incorporates musical interludes, where the actors playing the choir members sing, beautifully, classic American spirituals a capella.

Although the students may argue with each other, when they sing, they are a unified, lyrical voice, stronger together than apart.

With less than a week to Election Day, after a particularly divisive and ugly national presidential election, there’s an implicit lesson in here for the body politic, even if McRaney didn’t specifically intend that in a play first staged three years ago.

“This is now stuff, not just a walk in the park. There are some things in there that (McRaney) does that pushes people,” Green said.

Which is partially why he chose the play, because at just 90 minutes, with no intermission, the combination of the unconventional subject matter and the purity of the singing keeps people on the edge of their seats, Green said.

“I’m really excited to do this material in this community, and everybody that I’ve talked to is excited that I’m able to do this in this community,” Green said. “They want to hear and are hungry for new stories.”

Choir Boy, which runs through Nov. 20, has preview performances this evening and on Friday evening. Opening night is Saturday.

For information and tickets go to JAGProductionsVT.com, ArtisTreeVT.org or call 802-457-3500. Performances are scheduled for Thursday through Saturday: 7:30 pm, Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. There will be student matinees on Wednesday, Nov. 9 and Wednesday, Nov. 16.

On Friday, Nov. 11, there will be a post-show discussion on “Black Masculinity and the Intersection of Religion and Sexuality,” led by Jarvis Antonio Green and featuring J. Michael Kinsey, of Cornell University, and the Rev. Bertram Johnson, of The Riverside Church in the City of New York.

On Friday, Nov. 18, there will be a post-show discussion with the cast.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.




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