Backstage at the Samuel Friedman Theatre on a wintry Thursday evening, the stars of Choir Boy are going through their preshow routines. J. Quinton Johnson, who plays the bullyish legacy student Bobby Marrow, has the humidifier going for an hour-long vocal warm-up that includes a “ginger-honey situation,” drops of oregano oil, Papa Grether’s Pastilles, Emergen-C, blowing bubbles into water, and a long, hot shower. “We’ve got extensive things I’m just picking up from him,” says his dressing roommate John Clay III, who plays AJ James, the best friend to the protagonist. “This is my Broadway debut, so I’m figuring out as I go.” It’s December, and the show must go on, so you’d better not get sick.
On the lacquered red stage, Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Moonlight writer and former Alvin Ailey student, leads some of the actors through stretches to the sharp, rhythmic snap of his fingers. The musical-play, which follows a gospel choir at an all-boys prep school and features spirituals and step-dancing, marks the playwright’s Broadway debut, along with seven of the nine main cast members. Drawn from his own upbringing, it tackles similar themes to In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, his unpublished work that went on to become the Oscar-winning film by Barry Jenkins, from bullying to masculinity to young love. Choir Boy first premiered Off Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center in 2013, and the bones of the story have remained the same. Jeremy Pope played the main character, Pharus, then, too: the young, gifted, and black chorus leader who can’t help but shine. (As with Chiron from Moonlight, McCraney drew inspiration from the Greeks for the name: The Lighthouse of Alexandria was built on the island Pharos, which also means lighthouse.) Pharus might be the most talented member of the choir, but he’s in an institution, the Charles R. Drew Prep School, where the conventions of masculinity cage him in. Homophobic slurs dog him, and he’s punished for fighting back.
“The institution sets up these expectations for these young men, and no one will succeed because you can’t,” Pope explains. The work resonated with him personally, too, because he’d dealt with similar issues. “Being a black man and having some of the same questions in high school when you’re kind of crossing that threshold to being a man and going out into the world, there’s this idea specifically in the African-American community that you have to be a certain way. There’s this hypermasculine way of being.”
“It’s a play with questions, not answers,” emphasizes McCraney, “and that’s a selfish act for me. I want people to ponder the shit that keeps me up at night. And that way, I think, I feel less alone.”