Acceptance is a complicated thing: It’s easy to preach but hard to practice. Peace and Love are always the goal, but when it comes time to change things for the better and include everyone then suddenly there’s a problem. Acceptance needs to be taken the full way; you can’t say you accept someone but you get to have things that they don’t. That’s not nice. That’s not love. And don’t say things like “Love the sinner, hate the sin” because that helps no one. It certainly doesn’t help the characters in Choir Boy, a play that teaches acceptance through eyes of young students in a religious environment. The REP recently opened up their production of this fantastic show, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
The show is set in a boys’ prep school and focuses on a small acapella choir. Pharus (Tru Verret-Fleming) is very excited over his new position of choir lead, although it quickly gives him new struggles among his peers. Pharus is the typical “choir boy”: he is a goody two-shoes who refuses to snitch on anyone and has an almost blind devotion to his school. He is also very flamboyant and gets harassed for being homosexual, although he never outright says that he is. His new position in the choir causes tension with tough guy Bobby (Justin Lonesome), and his relationships with the other members of the choir are affected as well (some strengthened, some not).
The relationships between the boys is at the heart of this strong character piece. Pharus and Bobby are the most antagonistic, but scenes with Bobby and his best friend Junior (LaTrea Rambert) prove that we can’t write Bobby off as a bad person. He’s a misguided young man who has had his own share of struggles that he feels are more serious than Pharus’s. Their relationship doesn’t get stronger, but it is clear Bobby is going to learn something from his experiences with Pharus and hopefully he’ll become a better person. The counter to this is Pharus’s friendship with roommate AJ (Lamont Walker II), a boy who sees the good and kindness in Pharus and isn’t put off by his flamboyant mannerisms. AJ is the opposite of Bobby, a progressive boy who sees others for the things they do and not simply “what they are”. In the complicated middle ground is David (Mel Holley), a kind boy who wants to be a preacher. He tries to see the good things people do but his feelings are muddled by his faith, and further negativity is egged on by Bobby.
Wherever Pharus goes he is met with different attitudes. AJ is patient and puts up with his light flirting, while Bobby is aggressive and prone to calling him “faggot”. The Headmaster (Jason Shavers) tries to discourage Pharus’s mannerisms to protect him, but ultimately is just ignoring the “problem”. The Headmaster feeds the stigma around being gay: it is something to be ashamed of and should be hidden. While Bobby’s slurs such as “swishy” are heard throughout the show, the words “gay” and “homosexual” are never once said aloud, perhaps the playwright’s way of showing how these subjects can still be so taboo in some communities. In this case that community is a religious, all male, African-American prep school, where Pharus is an example of how hard it can be to be an outcast among your peers. Adding to that struggle is the notion that being gay is not the way a Christian male should behave but especially not how a black, Christian male should behave. The school’s motto and rules promote a strong bond of brotherhood, as many organizations and communities do. But, like the phrase “Justice for All”, it is not enough to just say the words; people have to show love and unity through their actions or nothing will change.
A strong cast of actors has been assembled to tell this wonderful story. Justin Lonesome is intimidating yet sympathetic as Bobby; this isn’t a “love to hate” character or a basic bully, but someone who struggles a lot and compensates angrily. His friend Junior is a good balance for him, a jokester who likes to have fun with everybody and look past the tension. LaTrea Rambert creates many funny moments during scenes with the group, but shows Junior’s serious side when he is alone with his headphones in, singing in his own little world. Mel Holley gets to tackle some serious subjects as David, and he does a good job with the conflicting emotions and a fantastic job at singing some of the more heartbreaking pieces. Jason Shavers and Jeff Howell get some excellent scenes as the adults in the boys’ life; the aforementioned Headmaster and a white professor who teaches the boys about their lives and history.
Tru Verret-Fleming plays Pharus at a flamboyancy level of 11 out of 10. Pharus has no small movements: he stomps child-like around the stage when he’s angry, he drops to his knees when he’s pleading with someone, he snaps his fingers when he fires an insult at someone. Pharus is a flamboyant boy for sure, but his exaggerated mannerisms can distract the audience from the words being said. Every line is presented like a sassy punchline to a joke that’s not always there. Verret-Fleming is a good actor and a great singer, but overall I think the production could have benefitted from creating a more human Pharus instead of a larger-than-life stereotype. His scenes with roommate AJ are the most vulnerable we get to see him, and Lamont Walker II does a fantastic job as AJ. He is a jock-type who tolerates Pharus’s dramatics because he sees the good and troubled boy inside. AJ isn’t the tough guy or the funny guy; he’s the guy you come to realize has the biggest heart, and that’s the best.
Have I mentioned the singing is divine? The choir performs many high-energy numbers with vocals that are sure to give you chills. The intimate studio theater at the playhouse is the perfect venue for a show with music that isn’t a full-on musical. In addition to being blown away with some numbers, the audience is also taken in by the vulnerabilities the characters share on stage either through song or dialogue. The small set is very well done and practically compact, shifting into scenes in dorm rooms or gym showers without pausing the action. The REP has assembled a great production of a fantastic script, and I highly recommend seeingChoir Boy for an uplifting (yet heartbreaking) message.
Presented by The REP Professional Theatre Company
Directed by Tome Cousin
Written by Tarell Alving McCraney
Designed by Lindsey B. Mayer (scenery), Michael Montgomery (costumes), Andrew David Ostrowski (lighting), Steve Shapiro (sound)
Starring MEl Holley (David Heard), Jeff Howell (Mr. Pendleton), Justin Lonesome (Bobby Marrow), LaTrea Rembert (Junior Davis), Jason Shavers (Headmaster Marrow), Tru Verret-Fleming (Pharus Jonathan Young), and Lamont Walker II (Anthony Justin “AJ” James).
Performance Date: Saturday, September 26, 2015