Talented folks who are superlative at what they do seem to inspire two responses in some of us; first, admiration if not outright awe of their talent.
Then, when we realize we can’t emulate the person’s talent, a second response may develop. A desire to control it, to gate-keep it, to in some way make it more conventional, maybe even denigrate it. This is particularly so if the person has high confidence and a disposition on the outskirts of flamboyancy.
It is this premise that under girds MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy.” The play just closed a highly praised run at the Manhattan Theatre Club, which is co-producing the show at the Alliance. Much the New York cast appears in the Atlanta show, which opened last week on the Hertz Stage. It is McCraney’s second play to headline the Hertz. His first play, “In the Red Brown Water,” won the 2008 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition. This season, to mark the award’s 10th year, all plays at the Hertz are by previous Kendeda winners.
Set at an all-black preparatory school for boys, “Choir Boy” revolves around a few members of the school’s renowned glee club. But the play has more in common with institutions like the Morehouse Glee Club than the ensemble of television’s “Glee.” “Choir Boy” is infused with gorgeous a capella arrangements of spirituals such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and robust debate over the meaning of those spirituals. But as much as sacred music enlivens the story, what propels it is the question of compromise. What changes in behavior does a community demand of a stand-out member before the community will deem him socially acceptable? What if those compromises impair the very nature of the standout’s creativity?
“He wrote this poignant coming-of-age story that actually paralleled most of my high school career,” said actor Nicholas Ashe, who appears in the production, via email. “Being he met me at 15, I was experiencing and identifying with what a lot of the teenage characters in “Choir Boy” were going through.”
Ashe, 18, portrays the tag-along, go-along character, Junior. The lead character, Pharus, is the student director of choir at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. He is the best tenor. He is a sharp student. He is gay. He is unapologetic and claims his space without hesitation. With a significant concert approaching, not all are comfortable with the effeminate young man or the self-reflection he causes among those around him.
“I often say that I admire the characters I write about, and I admire Pharus because he has this ability to recognize his talent,” McCraney said recently. “But with that talent, what does it mean to celebrate him but also to try and check him? His individuality is the chemical that makes his talent rise to the top. What happens is that we think, ‘Oh, you’re so talented, but if you could just sort of cookie cut yourself…’ So the question is, will we lose anything by him doing that?”
McCraney may admire his characters, but he also shares autobiographical traits with many of them. His trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays,” including “Red and Brown Water,” were inspired in part by his younger siblings, two brothers and a sister. His characters have lived in the projects, grown-up in the church, lost a parent, dealt with abuse, had a teen-aged mother, celebrated Southern roots, struggled with their sexual orientation. All of those elements are part McCraney’s personal narrative.
His childhood neighborhood of Liberty City in Miami was one of African-American, working-poor families. It was a challenging area bordered by the Cuban working-class suburb of Hialeah to the west and the Haitian enclave of Little Haiti to the east. Both immigrant neighborhoods would leave their mark on him. (He just spent time in Haiti researching the Haitian Revolution of the late 1700s for his adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra,” opening in November at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.) More intimately felt were the trials of his own family, with his mother battling drug addiction and complications from AIDS. McCraney divided his time between his father and grandfather, a Baptist minister.
“Sometimes we had the lights and sometimes we didn’t,” McCraney said. “Sometimes we had water and sometimes we didn’t. That experience shaped me largely.”
He qualified for free arts classes on weekends and summers at a community center in his neighborhood, as well as free ballet classes. He tried to hide his love of dance from the other black boys on his block who wondered why a 6’4” black boy wasn’t interested in basketball.
During his mother’s stint in rehab, when he was 13, the facility offered a drama program for the children of recovering addicts. The goal was for the children to write and perform prevention plays aimed at their peers. McCraney credits the director of the program for introducing him to the possibilities of theater.
“He taught us techniques from Brecht to Augusto Boal to Peter Brooks, just a world class education at 13,” McCraney said. “That was a social program that nobody knew the impact it would make. And that’s the thing about social programs: You don’t know the impact it will make. Sometimes, it’s not much but sometimes it’s everything.”
Degrees from DePaul University and Yale School of Drama came later. At Yale he had already created buzz as an up and comer in the theater world by the time he won the Kendeda. And yet, even with the success coming his way, he remained shy, a holdover from the days when being a gay young man in a hyper-macho community made him a target.
“Personally, I wish I was as confident as Pharus,” he said. “Even now I have huge bouts with confidence. I shouldn’t say I have no confidence, but sometimes I have to pep talk myself into doing things.”
Observers often marvel over accounts of McCraney’s early life as though he has lived the most remarkable urban fable. But his hard-knock Miami was and is a reality for many. What the playwright does is present those experiences as legitimate narratives that are familiar to many poor, working-class Americans, particularly those of color. They are everyday stories that are there in plain sight, but often overlooked. It is a testament to his talent that he tells them so lyrically and passionately that audience members often respond vocally to the characters during productions.
“I think the reason audiences resonate with his work is because of how many filters he takes away from the space between him and you,” said Susan V. Booth, Alliance artistic director. “It’s his heart out there beating, and the filters of distance and difference evaporate. I can’t list for you other writers who do it near as elegantly and poetically as he does.”
The spontaneous retorts from the audience do not bother McCraney. He sees it as part of the call-and-response culture he experienced as a child in his grandfather’s church. The songs and shouts of the choir, the rise and fall of the sermon, the interplay with the congregants; those moments were, for McCraney, both sacred and theater.
“That back and forth, I crave it,” he said. “The call and response is what theater is about. It’s that moment when someone calls out a line and you respond to it, that act of faith that you are both building the story together.”
He remembers fondly audience response to “In the Red and Brown Water” on the Hertz stage. It is about a young woman who is as talented a track star as Pharus is a singer. She deals with a gravely ill mother, as well as the attentions of two very different men, each presenting divergent life paths.
“The entire audience was just speaking to the characters,” McCraney said. “ ‘Girl, don’t do that.’ ‘I can’t believe.’ ‘I knew it all along.’ ‘There it is.’ ‘There it go.’ Unlike audiences in other places around the country, you’ll find an audience at the Alliance that’s really intellectually engaged but also that isn’t afraid to call right back to the stage. If the spirit moves, an Atlanta audience will call and respond, which is wonderful for a piece like ‘Choir Boy.’
“It’s a reminder that we’re here together and we’re in it together, rather than being separate in the same space,” he said. “For that you can just stay home and watch TV.”
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