A transformation happens to the students of Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys whenever they open their mouths to sing. As soon as these feisty adolescents give themselves over to the Negro Spirituals that inspired their ancestors, the jousting, bickering and name-calling that have been dominating their extracurricular lives no longer seem all that important.
A similar change happens to Tarell Alvin McCraney's drama "Choir Boy" whenever these characters switch from speech to song. A play with a plot that could easily be incorporated into a season of "Glee" moves from prose to poetry as the voices of these choir members lift up and harmonize with history.
This touching and funny play by the prodigiously talented author of "The Brother/Sister Plays" may bring to mind "The History Boys," Alan Bennett's enchanting music-infused drama about ethics and education. But "Choir Boy," which opened Friday at the Geffen Playhouse under the direction of Trip Cullman, creates a milieu, culturally and theatrically, all its own.
Front and center, usually with a hip cocked and finger waving, is Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope), the newly elected student leader of the school's famous choir. As bright as he is bossy, Pharus stands out for another reason: He's considered effeminate by his teachers and peers, suspected of being gay and alternately ostracized for being different and revered for being so darn smart and vocally talented.
When we first meet Pharus at the end of his junior year he's being dressed down by Headmaster Marrow (Michael A. Shepperd) for freezing up in the middle of his solo during commencement. A proud Drew man who doesn't want to tattle on a fellow student, Pharus has difficulty explaining that the reason he stopped singing was that Bobby Marrow (Donovan Mitchell), a choir member and the headmaster's nephew, was pelting him with gay slurs.
The following fall, when everyone's back from summer break and rattled by the headmaster's punishment for the commencement incident, Pharus gets his chance at revenge on Bobby by temporarily banishing him and his belligerence from the choir.
But the battle rages on in a class held by Mr. Pendleton (Leonard Kelly-Young), a new white faculty member charged with getting the students to be more intellectually adventurous. Pendleton has difficulty winning over the students in the early going with his racial gaffes and blind spots, but it doesn't take long before the students are pummeling one another with ideas, with Pharus throwing the meanest of polemical uppercuts.
After the headmaster reinstates Bobby in the choir, battle lines only harden in a war that Pharus, for all his gifts and gumption, isn't likely to win. Caught in the crossfire are the other choir members: Junior Davis (Nicholas L. Ashe), Bobby's sweet-natured sidekick; Anthony Justin "AJ" James (Grantham Coleman), Pharus' jock roommate with a soft heart; and David Heard (Caleb Eberhardt), a skittish peacemaker determined to become a minister.
The squabbling admittedly could be streamlined in a play that packs in a little too much incidental character detail. McCraney, an actor as well as a dramatist, wants to give each ensemble member his due, but he should trust his audience a little more to deduce background information from the action.
So much of the play's authenticity lies in the coltish interactions of the young men, their verbal sparring and sexually tinged horseplay. Cullman elicits great work from his company in this regard. The production as a whole could be accelerated, and Pope's diction could be more precise in places, but not a false note is hit from anyone.
Part of Pharus' fascination for us is that he's a victim who's determined to be a contender. Denigrated for not sticking to the script of boyhood, he becomes a ruthless enforcer of rules once he's invested with authority. His limp wrist, which provokes a rebuke from the headmaster, belies an iron will. But will an institution perennially anxious about its public image want Pharus to be its model?
Stories set in hermetic locales — prisons, convents, schools — have a curiously powerful allure. In knitting together unrelated characters into a makeshift family, they speak to our fantasies that the forbidding world outside our door can be converted again and again into a kind of home. They also establish microcosms that enable us to see more clearly pernicious patterns in our own society.
The all-male, African American prep school of McCraney's play provides an insular world in which issues of race, gender and class come to the fore. But it is sexual orientation that is the focal point of "Choir Boy," and in particular the soul-stomping oppression of gay youth — an oppression condoned by a system that rigidly insists that boys act like stereotypical boys.
"Choir Boy" is a timely reminder that even with all the civil-rights strides of LGBT Americans in recent years, bigotry, bullying and brutality are still an everyday occurrence for teens who either cannot or will not hide their sexual identity — something that McCraney goes to great (and occasionally audacious) lengths to show isn't easy to conceal in the pubescent pressure cooker of high school.
But the play, which had its American premiere last year at Manhattan Theatre Club in a production that was also staged by Cullman and that included several of the current Geffen cast members, finds its sublimity in the music. The songs, which range from religious to R&B classics, are those that invite a shackled soul to take flight, and they are beautifully performed by the cast under the guidance of musical director and vocal arranger Jason Michael Webb.
Pharus, arguing in Pendleton's class against some historical claims made for Negro Spirituals, contends that, "These songs forged in the shame and brutality of oppression are diamonds that glint and prove true that hope and love can live, thrive, and even sing." He knows this not only through the stories that have been handed down to him but through his own urgent need to shine in a world that has all too often heartlessly rejected his light.