theater review

Theater Reviews: Contemporary Northern Prep and Southern Gothic, in Choir Boy and Blue Ridge

From Choir Boy, at the Samuel J. Friedman. Photo: © Matthew Murphy, 2018

“Try to blend,” the vivacious Pharus Jonathan Young instructs his fellow choirboys as they kneel to pray together near the start of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s spicy, mellifluous play. Then the young choir lead halfway cocks an eyebrow and adds, “For the Lord, at least.” In Choir Boy, Pharus (Jeremy Pope) is a senior at the complacently old-school, presumably ivy-covered Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. He’s “never missed the key of G since I was 3” and, as he tells Drew’s pragmatic patriarch, Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper), “Ever since I was a little boy I’ve wanted to grow up and be a Drew man.” So as the newly crowned head of the school’s prestigious choir, Pharus is living the dream — but it’s a fragile paradise. Pharus might have a voice from heaven, but he’s stuck on an Earth that would rather he, well, tone it down a little. “Tighten up,” the headmaster tells him with a serious, subtext-heavy stare: “All men hold some things in.” Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson), the headmaster’s scowling bully of a nephew, puts it more plainly: With Pharus in charge, Bobby smolders, there’s “gone be a school full of Drew faggots.”

The Drew boys — they want very badly to be men, but they’ve still got a long way to go — create shimmering, ethereal harmonies when they sing, but their day-to-day lives are one long dissonant chord. Bobby is a sulky petty tyrant carrying around personal grief and hurt. David (Caleb Eberhardt) is tight-lipped and furrow-browed: He wants to a minister, but his grades are suffering, his home life is rocky, and he’s got his own painful secret. Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe) means well, but when storm clouds loom among the older boys, he’ll go which way the wind blows. And Pharus is just too big a person to take up less space. He’s smart, gifted, ambitious, opinionated, and too full of effervescent spirit — and indeed, though he’s got fears like any teenager, of self-respect — to carry a closet around with him. Not that he’s out per se: “Don’t gay mean to be with another man? You seen [me do] that?” he quips to his sympathetic roommate AJ (John Clay III). “Sick of people calling me something I ain’t doing. I’m just Pharus.” He knows he needs to talk the straight talk at least until he’s got a Drew diploma in hand, but when he walks, there’s an undeniable runway strut in his step.

Director Trip Cullman has a buoyant feel for the play’s comedy and, along with arranger and music director Jason Michael Webb, he gives Choir Boy’s songs the front-and-center treatment they deserve. The play is an undercover, and gorgeous, a cappella musical, kept aloft by the extraordinary vocal talents of its cast. Pope, Johnson (a former Hercules Mulligan/James Madison in Hamilton), and Eberhardt lead a company of fearless, goosebump-inducing singers through spirituals that sometimes float and soar and sometimes — aided by Camille A. Brown’s wonderfully percussive movement work — pulse and drive. Pharus recognizes the powerful taproot in this music: “The rhythm and the joy and the spiritual uplifting that [these songs] made …” he tells his classmates, “that is the rebellion … What they were, are, is sweet honey in the rock, that didn’t just help the slaves then but help us now, this day. That is the resistance … Those are the maps and guides to the Promised Land. Not to cross some man-made border but to find a place in our hearts that felt like peace.”

Pharus isn’t just expostulating — he’s arguing. The boys have been given an assignment by the enthusiastic Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, charming in rumpled-and-a-bit-abstracted-but-intellectually-rigorous-pedagogue mode), a former Drew professor who’s come back at the headmaster’s request to help the boys “think outside the box.” Pick “a theory, a well-known theory, and challenge it,” Mr. Pendleton has told his students. True to his nature, Pharus takes a risk and talks about the very music that creates the only tenuous strands of sympathy and fellowship amongst the factious students. And true to his nature, Bobby starts to boil. “That’s just not like any old thing, you talking about the very subject you supposed to be good at,” he shoots at Pharus, “and now you saying it ain’t, what, authentic?” Pharus has dared to challenge the long-accepted folk wisdom that spirituals contained coded messages that helped slaves escape to freedom. The songs aren’t literal, he argues — what they are is right there in the name. They aren’t “slave escape double-oh-seven plans” but something deeper, longer-lived, more ephemeral and more transcendent. McCraney is building to a showdown between Pharus — whose conviction comes with more than a little salt — and Bobby, who can’t bear what he interprets as his rival’s cavalierness and condescension. What begins as an intellectual debate becomes supercharged with emotion — because the subject on the table is nothing less than the lifeline for these boys. It’s how they make it through daily uncertainty and shame and suffering. It’s what takes them out of themselves. It is, as it was for so many others before them, survival for the soul.

McCraney’s scenes don’t always boil with the same urgency as this mounting face-off over the music that gives the boys meaning. Choir Boy can at times feel episodic rather than propulsive as McCraney weaves in and out of Pharus’s central story line to add layers to his fellow characters. But if the play sometimes wobbles a bit in its forward motion, it never loses its sense of lift, of reaching upward. Its performers and its music keep it flying, like a bird circling in a powerful updraft. From Pope’s bright, sly, uncompromising Pharus to Eberhardt’s hurting, headed-for-a-meltdown David and Clay III’s winning, stand-up AJ (a character whose genuine kindness and right-headedness are refreshing without being mushy), the actors are uniformly front-footed and sensitive, bold and tender. They reveal Choir Boy for the love letter that it is — a quick-witted and humane play with room in its heart for each of the boys struggling to find himself at Drew. Though it’s Pharus’s story, there’s something in the play’s music that — as Pharus himself recognizes — both broadens and transcends the individual struggle. When he or David or Bobby sings, they’re no longer frightened, fronting kids. They are the music, and for a moment, they are free.

Though McCraney doesn’t precisely locate the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys, I’d bet it lies a good distance to the north of the church-sponsored halfway house in Abby Rosebrock’s muscular, roiling new play Blue Ridge, now having its luminously acted world premiere at the Atlantic under the swift, sure hand of Taibi Magar. There, in a neat if dowdy living room on a North Carolina mountaintop, the smart, and smarting, “disgraced English teacher” Alison (Marin Ireland) has landed in a court-mandated recovery program after an outburst of rage in which she took an ax to her former principal’s car. The Drew boys’ spirituals aren’t exactly Alison’s thing: When she’s asked to lead her first Bible study, she turns to the Gospel according to Carrie Underwood. “All right, so, um,” Alison gulps, trying to make headway with the kind, expectant faces that surround her, “Carrie Underwood … has authored — what I would call two … diametrically opposed, country-Western texts that uh … Not only, resonate powerfully, with the current moment in my life but, also probably, represent the two spiritual poles’uh my entire existence.”

Those “texts” would be “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats.” And while they might not be exactly what Hern (Chris Stack) and Grace (Nicole Lewis) — the halfway house’s earnest, reticent pastor and his steady, sunny co-administrator — had in mind, Alison’s got a point. She’s stretched between desperate capitulation and vengeful, red-eyed fury, as sharp-edged and strung out as a coil of razor wire, with a façade of wide-smiling, loud-laughing, brightest-star-in-the-room energy that’s wearing dangerously thin. She befriends and defends and self-deprecates and apologizes and regroups and sparkles with terrifying quickness, giggling at her own expense while holding fast to her intellectual superiority like a present-day Blanche DuBois. The likeness, of course, is hardly lost on her: Broken Blanche, “carted off” to the loony bin. “I, I, I took the blows, in my face, and my body!” Alison cries seemingly out of the blue, dramatically quoting A Streetcar Named Desire in a later Bible-study session. “Get used’tuh this, man,” whispers Wade (Kyle Beltran), one of Alison’s fellows in recovery, to the new guy, Cole (Peter Mark Kendall).

As she’s quick to point out, Alison’s “not an addict.” At least, not in the traditional sense. Her housemates may be recovering alcoholics — like Wade and the wise, warmhearted Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), or like Cole, a young vet who also suffers from PTSD — but by her own account she, Alison, is a woman wronged. “Well by this point in life,” she chirps, summarizing the actions of “Before He Cheats’” provoked protagonist, but really talking about herself, “all the accumulated pain an’ hopelessness an’ annihilatin’ degradation uh’bein a woman in this sexual economy’ve juss … racked the speaker’s brain and body, like a cancer … Frankly she doesn’t know how to surrender, those feelings to Christ anymore — they’re juss, too intractable I guess. They’ve metastasized, so. All she can do is, act out those feelings, by um. By destroyin’ … Destroyin’ this man’s car … I literally did that to someone, whom I love very much …”

If that makes you laugh, it should, and if it makes you cringe at the same time, it should do that too. In its early stages, Rosebrock’s play nimbly balances on a knife edge between weird, excitingly uncomfortable comedy and deep, hideous pain. And in the frighteningly fantastic Ireland, Rosebrock and Magar have found a central actor who’s right at home in that treacherous place. Ireland — who brought humor and guts and excruciating pathos to one of Blanche DuBois’s literary cousins in last year’s Summer and Smoke — is that miraculous being: an actor who’s truly not afraid of ugliness, internal or external. She’s a willow wand with an adamantine core and an elastic face: It can look almost sublime — beatific and yet suffused with cares like a Madonna in an ancient painting — or it can twist and strain itself into an awful, almost unrecognizable maw of suffering. I’d like to see her in a Greek tragedy. There aren’t many actors out there who are built for them, but Ireland’s Medea or her Agave would be a thing to see.

In the meantime, she’s got Alison, and Alison’s her own primal force — yearning and self-deceiving and well-meaning and horribly destructive. And shatteringly ashamed and lonely. Like Denise Gough’s Emma in People, Places & Things, Alison is a shudder-inducing study of an all-too-familiar kind of brokenness, brought blazing into life by a brilliant performer. Marin burns a hole right through the center of Blue Ridge, but the production’s real credit is that she doesn’t leave her fellow actors behind. Magar’s whole ensemble feels poised and powerful, feeding energy back and forth with Ireland rather than standing behind her. Lloyd, who seems like all sweetness and light to begin with, is a wrenching slow-burn as the increasingly wounded but morally rock-steady Cherie, whose personal life Alison misguidedly tries to take in hand. Kendall is a quietly magnetic as the hulking, heartbreaking newcomer, Cole, and Beltran works subtly, scene by scene, to give the initially easygoing Wade layer upon layer of perceptive, hardworking humanity. When Cole, working on his 12 steps, tentatively asks Wade if he listed “all blowjobs” when he wrote out his own list of “harms done” to others, a conversation begins that’s as funny as it is unbearable in its stumbling poignancy. “I wonder if sex with me is thankless,” ponders Cole, his brow knitting up: “My sponsor once said, bout the sex inventory, the ones you don’t remember, or don’t think about much … Those [are] the ones you harmed the most.”

All Blue Ridge’s characters are feeling their way in the dark toward self-knowledge and, if they survive the trip, forgiveness. Rosebrock doesn’t let any of them leave unscathed. Even Lewis’s brave, good-hearted Grace, who seems like the play’s firm center, is rudely tossed by the tempest that Alison ultimately stirs up in the halfway house, admitting to her charges in the wake of the play’s harrowing climax that her job “is the thing I most wanna do right. An’ lotta times what we want most … Thass what makes our big sins flare up. An my big sin, I think, is um, kinda compromisin’, on what I sense to be true?” Blue Ridge deals courageously in hard, sad human truths, the kind of metastasized stuff that might take a lifetime to heal. Rosebrock’s unsentimental insight and the ensemble’s raw fearlessness make it sting, and Ireland makes it stick.

Choir Boy is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Blue Ridge is at the Atlantic Theatre Company through January 26.

Theater Reviews: Choir Boy and Blue Ridge