Jeremy Pope and Charles E. Wallace in the Alliance Theatre production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy.” (Photo by Greg Mooney.)

‘Choir Boy’ a sad, disconsolate song

In the story of Pharus Jonathan Young, an effeminate young man who doesn’t fit the mold of tradition at a prep school for African-American men, Tarell Alvin McCraney creates a shattering meditation on the degradation of the human spirit.

At the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys — an elite institution where pride and honor are woven into the very fabric of the culture, a la Morehouse College — Pharus is chosen to lead the gospel choir his senior year. Alas, his moment of glory turns into the game of escalating ugliness, humiliation, shame and defeat that pushes McCraney’s “Choir Boy” to its inexorably sad, soul-bruising conclusion.

A co-production of the Alliance Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club, “Choir Boy” opened Wednesday on the Atlanta playhouse’s Hertz Stage. On that same day, McCraney, whose “In the Red and Brown Water” was the 2008 winner of the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.

Directed by Trip Cullman and starring Jeremy Pope as Pharus, “Choir Boy” is a haunting tale of bullying and cruelty with only fleeting glimpses of grace and comedy.

While the humor mostly results from the collision between Pharus’ girly glee and his classmates’ hypermasculinity, the redeeming moments are to be found in the gorgeous a capella spirituals (arranged by Jason Michael Webb) that percolate through the halls of Drew, miracles rising above the menace.

Though Pharus refuses to tell the headmaster (Charles E. Wallace) who heckled him during his junior-year solo, he will exact his revenge, at no small cost to his ego. As the tension mounts and a doddering white teacher (Scott Robertson) arrives on the scene, the boys’ true colors are eventually revealed. There’s Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe), a sweetly naive kid with a manly baritone; the headmaster’s hectoring nephew, Bobby (Joshua Boone); the mysterious and ethereal David (Caleb Eberhardt), who aspires to be a minister; and Pharus’ roommate, Anthony (John Stewart), who turns out to be the most tender-hearted of the choristers.

This is an exceedingly fine ensemble of singers and actors, and the 100-minute one act is clotted with technical virtuosity. The most devastating moments, for me, were David’s breakdown and Anthony’s account of Pharus’ tortured history. (Stewart, let it be said, is superb.)

As a sort of African-American version of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” with gospel, “Choir Boy” transpires on David Zinn’s slickly painted red set (Zinn also does the appropriately preppy costumes), and it’s no coincidence that the gospel songs are shot through with images of slavery, bloodshed, isolation and despair. But even as self-loathing Pharus is taunted by bullies and castigated by the headmaster for having a limp wrist, he is ultimately comforted by the gentle Christlike Anthony.

The production, for the record, is peppered with nudity, sexual innuendo, discussions of the male anatomy and so on; the play is set in a boys’ school, after all. While you could pick apart some of the plot machinations (the scene in which Pharus provokes Bobby over a pop song, for example), McCraney is a ferocious talent. This drama is an exceptionally beautiful, heart-pummeling piece of theater.

With Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s glorious “Harmony” playing upstairs, the Alliance’s 45th season is off the grid. The cathartic “Choir Boy” cuts to the bone and chills to the marrow. It may leave you helpless and disconsolate. But you won’t find better work anywhere.

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