Some American playwrights are embraced by British theatres, which often produce their work more readily than venues across the Atlantic. Among these is black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose entertaining Wig Out! was produced at the Royal Court in 2008 and American Trade by the RSC at Hampstead last year. By then, he’d already made his mark with his The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy.
Kwayedza Kureya (Junior Davis), Khali Best (AJ James), Dominic Smith (Pharus Jonathan Young) and Aron Julius (David Heard) in Choir Boy at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
His latest, Choir Boy, has a bright young cast and an original setting. The story takes place in an all-black, all-male American school - the Charles R Drew Prep School for Boys - which proves to be a pressure cooker for ideas not only about race and sexuality, but about music and history as well.
The play begins with Pharus, a bright gay young man who sings brilliantly in the choir, being distracted while performing his solo during an important school concert by Bobby, an aggressive and proud heterosexual. The conflict between the two boys, which is complicated by the fact that Bobby is headmaster Marrow’s nephew, soon escalates.
The other members of the choir provide a cross-section of American youth, with AJ, who is Pharus’s loyal room-mate, and David, who wants to be a pastor. Then there’s Bobby’s sidekick, Junior. But McCraney also widens the play’s debate by having headmaster Marrow invite an older white professor, Pendleton - a veteran of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s - to teach the boys.
The key scene is a fascinating class in which the history of the American spiritual is addressed. Bobby articulates the idea that traditional black spirituals were clandestine instructions designed to help slaves escape during the 19th century. These songs held coded messages, designed to give details of the best way to avoid recapture if you were a runaway slave.
This idea is questioned by Pharus, who argues that runaways had no need for coded instructions and that the function of any song is more directly to inspire though its own inherent musical beauty, and the grace of its words. In other words, Bobby’s view is an invented tradition and has no basis in fact.
Like some of McCraney’s other plays, Choir Boy is not only a study of black culture but also a coming out play. Pharus has to come to terms with his homosexuality and with the ideals of the school, in which snitching on other boys is the worst crime. And McCraney also shows how black culture struggles with the clash between sexuality and religious ideas.
This fascinating play gets an excellent production from Dominic Cooke in his final season as artistic director. Designer Ultz has turned the studio space into a school environment with the audience ranked like parents at a prize-giving. Of the young cast, several of whom make their debuts, newcomer Dominic Smith shines as Pharus and Eric Kofi Abrefa is a powerful Bobby.
Similarly impressive are Khali Best (AJ), Aron Julius (David) and Kwayedza Kureya (Junior), while Gary McDonald and David Burke are convincing as headmaster Morrow and Pendleton. With music beautifully arranged by Colin Vassell, this is an emotionally engaging and thought-provoking drama.