Denver Center production a top-flight rendering of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s prep-school tale

Choir Boy spins a lot of plates topic-wise: homesexuality, race, coming-of-age, male identity, Black identity, academic politics, music, slavery, friendship and more. Despite that full dance card, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) pulls it off remarkably well, creating a piece of theatre that successfully explores an emotional powder keg at the heart of an elite academy for young Black men alongside a celebration of song and brotherhood.

At the heart of the story is junior Pharus Jonathan Young (Darron Hayes), the most talented voice in the Drew Academy choir. Unapologetically gay and out, Pharus nonetheless bears the scars of a thousand insults throughout his life. And while one might think a modern academic institution like Drew would be a safe place, he’s still subject to a lot of the same old shit. So when a series of circumstances puts him in the position to punish one of his persecutors, he takes it.

In this Denver Center Theatre Company production, director Jamil Jude has a particularly strong cast to work with, and while Hayes is a standout as Pharus, the actors playing the other four students bring not just powerful voices but unique personalities that help fully realize their unique and complex identities. As Pharus’s roommate AJ, Kyle Ward balances his character’s innate machismo with a level of compassion and decency that makes him particularly endearing. And it’s the friendship between the two young men that forms the emotional nexus of Choir Boy. It is, in fact, the only relationship Pharus has that evolves to a place of minimal judgment as AJ eventually learns to accept Pharus for who he is, making an earnest and honest effort to try to understand the world from a gay man’s perspective.

One of many tense moments in ‘Choir Boy’ | Photo: Adams VisCom

On the other end of the spectrum is Bobby (Alex Michell), an entitled and homophobic jerk who relies on family ties to the headmaster to stay out of trouble. While Pharus is singing a solo at the commencement ceremony in the opening scene, Bobby whispers insults at him. It’s a startling moment when it happens, coming as it does during a brochure-worthy academic exercise. For a moment, I wondered for a moment if I heard it right.

But when it later turns out that the choir’s sponsor is out of action the following year, Pharus has a chance to lead the choir and cast Bobby out.

For Headmaster Marrow (Josh A. Dawson), this presents a conundrum as he tries to do what’s right for Pharus as he struggles with issues of nepotism.

Thinking it’d help address the young men’s ability to get along better, Marrow brings in a former professor, Mr. Pendleton (Peter Van Wagner) to teach a course just for them focused on critical thinking. The fact that he’s an old white guy doesn’t endear him to the group at first, but his persistence at convincing them to “think outside the box” eventually leads to some breakthroughs — although they’re fleeting. Also in the mix is Bobby’s slacker friend Junior (Josh Fulton) and seminary-bound David (Brandon G. Stalling.)

Choir Boy has a mystery element to it as the layers get peeled back and we learn about Pharus’s former roommate and why they no longer bunk together. As we later discover, Drew has a policy strictly forbidding “intimate relations” between students, leaving the main characters in an interesting place at the end.

While there are certainly elements of race in the play, Choir Boy is a universal story about acceptance and “adulting,” if you will. That precarious period in life between after childhood where those little-kid voices are still driving a lot of emotion. McCraney’s play paints all of those contradictions in an insular environment with just the five young men and the two older ones. Since it takes place in DCPA’s in-the-round Kilstrom Theatre, the pressure-cooker scenario is enhanced even more, with the audience close to the action and nowhere for the boys to hide from one another.

The Kilstrom, since its remodel, also has a neat feature allowing for water to be used in certain ways. In Choir Boy, it provides a remarkably realistic shower-room environment, complete with steam that partially masks the students’ nudity in two pivotal scenes that I won’t recount for spoiler reasons.

Alongside all the action are quite a few opportunities for the choir members to sing. Sometimes it’s a snippet of something, others are full-length spirituals that carry a lot of meaning for them. This is accompanied by some precision choreography and percussion bits pounded out on benches, thighs and whatever else is handy.

With all it’s trying to do, Choir Boy could easily have resulted in a mess in the hands of a lesser playwrights. But McCraney’s vision nicely parallels life itself: messy, complex and hard to follow unless you know the whole story. The Denver Center production does it full justice, and it’s really one not to miss.