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Playwright & Oscar Winner Tarell Alvin McCraney On Why ‘Choir Boy’ Sings To Your Heart

McCraney Won An Academy Award For Co-Writing ‘Moonlight’ With Barry Jenkins

Tarell Alvin McCraney brings his talents to Broadway in his debut of his new play CHOIR BOY. McCraney first made headlines for his Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay – Moonlight, which was an American coming of age drama film co-written and directed by Barry Jenkins. This time he joins forces with Drama Desk Award nominee for Outstanding Director of a Play, ‘A Small Fire’, Trip Cullman.

Choir Boy is not new to the theater scene having been at Manhattan Theater Club’s Off-Broadway Stage II in 2013. What’s also not new is the nuanced way McCraney tells the story of the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys that is dedicated to the education of strong, ethical black men. One talented student has been waiting years to take his rightful place as the leader of the legendary gospel choir. Their motto is ‘Proving Men for Tomorrow’.

As McCraney says, “the relevant question in Choir Boy is, how do you want your community to thrive? You want the best for your community but also to find out who you are as an individual? Can those two things live together and next to each other? We as black people wrestle with this because society tells us to leave behind our community and strive for something else outside of that. We watch Pharus (Jeremy Pope), who is in love with his school and wants to a part of the legacy, and at the same time, he identifies as queer, and he tries to make sure he still has a space in that community.”

Director Trip Cullman states, “the play examines how institutions have the ability to embrace and provide a safe haven for all kinds of humans. Can the school figure out a place for him to fit in, to be himself? How can we find space for everyone to be able to express who they are without being told that they’re less than and to be happy.” The students at the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys are aged 14 – 19, a pivotal time in a young man’s life. The information you receive, the love and attention you do or don’t receive, can inform the rest of your high school experience. In some ways you combat or embrace the rest of your life, based on that timeframe.

Even if you can’t identify with the coming of age of these young black men, what will connect you, is the soulful acappella singing in this play. Playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney was instrumental in choosing the songs. “We used Negro spirituals because they have such a legacy of both spiritual and political importance. They are a treasure in the African American experience in this country. When we talk about our myths, our legends, our mythology, our gifts; these songs are a part of them. When we entrust them into the hands of our young people, what does that mean for us? How do we give them that responsibility without taking away their individuality? Is there a pressure put on them to be like we were or do we allow them to be their own selves and still carry the mantle of this incredible music.”

After talking with McCraney it’s obvious that expression and individuality is a very important theme throughout this play. As all of the young men go through their own struggles to find their way, they are all united and find common ground in song. Which is a universal language, no matter your age or sexuality. He truly wants the audience to examine how open they are with young people being able to fully and truly represent themselves. And if it goes against what you’re used to or even what you expect, are you comfortable in allowing these young men to flourish?

As told by Director Trip Cullman, the orchestrations are done by musical genius, Jason Michael Webb. “The way in which the spirituals are folded into the story of the fabric of the play is beautiful. They sort of take on these double levels, like “Motherless Child”, that we heard. It’s also within the context of we’re halfway through the school year, we’re at a boarding school, the boys are missing their moms, they haven’t been home in awhile, one of them, their mother has passed away. So it has a double resonance that way. It has expression of solidarity and passion for each other, while navigating the choppy waters of moving from boyhood to manhood.”

Choir Boy boasts an ensemble cast where eight members make their Broadway debut: Nicolas L. Ashe (Junior Davis), Daniel Bellomy (Ensemble), Jonathan Burke (Ensemble), Gerald Caesar, (Ensemble) John Clay III (Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James), Caleb Eberhardt (David Heard), Marcus Gladney (Ensemble), and Jeremy Pope (Pharus Jonathan Young). J. Quinton Johnson, who playsBobby Marrow, has had previous Broadway experience.

One of the most notable cast members, Nicolas L. Ashe, known for his role as Micah West on OWNs Queen Sugar, has been affiliated with McCraney’s play since 2009 where he began attending workshops. Ashe notes, “the beauty of it coming to Broadway and expanding to audiences is that our playwright is living. He can chronicle this and manipulate the story in a way that becomes even more resonant and it becomes even more potent in 2018. I think that audiences are in for a really wild, explosive, passionate, intimate, beautiful ride that they are not expecting. People oftentimes think they can’t find themselves in plays, let alone a play about all men. I think that there’s a bit of you in every character, or your nephew, or your cousin, or your brother, or your son.”

Another young actor to keep your eyes on is Jeremy Pope who plays Pharus, the central character. His first audition out of college was the Off-Broadway production of Choir Boy, where he landed a role. Years later he makes his debut on Broadway, with this play. It’s a full circle moment for him and he’s relishing in it. “This is really special. McCraney is my mentor. We both grew up in Florida. To just be in a room with him and Cullman, they are so loving. They are incredible human beings and artists. It just feels right. I believe in God’s timing. I had to truly lean into that because five years later I feel like a stronger man. I feel like I’ve been able to answer some questions for myself. It was my first job. There were a lot of things I needed to learn about myself and what it means to be a black man in this industry, as an artist, and what story and messages I wanted to tell.”

Choir Boy has a limited engagement run at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater from January 8, 2019 through February 24, 2019.

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