ABOVE PHOTO: A scene from Tarell McCraney’s award-winning play “Choir Boy”, produced by the Philadelphia Theater Company. The play tells the story of a group of young, Black men in an elite boarding school and their journey to manhood. (Photo: Mark Garvin)
In the coming-of-age story “Choir Boy,” a group of young men explores what it means to be human and recognized as such in a space where that’s sometimes problematic.
By Denise Clay-Murray
In an atmosphere like a high school, trying to find out who you are while figuring out where you fit in among a group can be a big adjustment — an adjustment made even more arduous when society’s expectations of you are also thrown in.
In the Philadelphia Theater Company’s production of “Choir Boy,” a group of young Black men in a boarding school tackle those questions and find out what it means to forge your own identity and make your voice heard in the process.
Using a combination of R&B, gospel music, and choreography, the Tony-award winning play written by Tarell Alvin McRaney tells the story of Pharus Young (Justen Ross), the leader of the choir at the elite, all-Black, Charles A. Drew Prep School for Boys. As a young, gay man in a school built on longstanding traditions, norms and a healthy dose of religiosity, the challenge Pharus faces is maintaining his own identity while living in harmony with his choirmates.
Bringing this story to life is the job of director Jeffrey Page. Page, a graduate of the University of the Arts, is an Emmy-nominated director and choreographer who has worked with Beyonce and Jazmine Sullivan, among others. “Choir Boy” marks his directorial debut as the artist in residence for the Philadelphia Theater Company.
At a time when we’re debating who gets to call themselves American and whose voices should or shouldn’t be heard, a play like “Choir Boy” brings those conversations to the forefront, Page said.
“It’s about realities,” he said. “I think it’s about how we perceive reality, and how it and how it kind of disappears, you know, almost instantaneously. It tracks [Pharus’] journey and what it means as a queer young man to be in that world and that space. You need and want to have a voice, but so many influences tell him that he shouldn’t have a voice, and he should not walk a certain way and do certain things. He attempts to put on a mask of conformity.”
“Right now,” Page continued, “We’re dealing with something very similar in our society. I think Tarell McRaney, the playwright, wrote a beautiful piece with beautiful metaphors and parallels to what is actually happening in society. And so, I think, in that respect, I think it’s absolutely necessary for this kind of story to be told right now.”
Actors from Philadelphia, New York and around the country have been cast in the play, Page said.
Among those actors is Dana Orange, who portrays David Heard, a senior at Charles A. Drew who Orange describes as a “very complex character” on a journey of his own. Before making his Philadelphia Theater Company debut in “Choir Boy,” the Baltimore native portrayed Sebastian in the Walnut Street Theater’s production of “The Little Mermaid”.
Because the story was close to home for him, Orange fell instantly in love with it, he said. When a friend suggested he try out for a part in the production should it come around again, he jumped at the chance.
“It was a story that I thought was so important to be told, because we don’t get to hear a lot of stories about young, queer black men growing up in these specific conditions that these boys are growing up in,” Orange said. “You get to see into the lives of these boys who are struggling with their identity and it just kind of opens up a light to the things that we put on our youth and how you have to navigate the world. It’s a great insight on how we how we deal with these issues of being queer and Black in America.”
Now when it comes to entertainment, Philadelphia can be a tough town. But Page is confident that Philadelphians will like “Choir Boy,” especially since this is a town that encourages authenticity.
“I think that Philadelphia sees the world the way that it is,” Page said. “There are no rose-colored glasses that Philadelphians wear, which I think is magnificent. It means that when you show up to Philadelphia, you have to show up honest and as yourself, because Philadelphians will see it. I’m really proud of the cast we have, and I think these actors really represent these characters in a dynamic way. I think that Philadelphia will take a liking to this.”
You can catch Choir Boy” at the Suzanne Roberts Theater, 480 South Broad St., from now until March 13. Tickets start at $35, and thanks to PTC’s 10Tix program, a select number of $10 seats, made possible by PNC Arts Alive, are available for each performance. Tickets can be purchased online at: www.philatheatreco.org or by phone at: (215) 985-0420.
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