In 'Choir Boy,' 'Moonlight' Writer Brings Prep School Coming-Of-Age Story To Broadway

Mar 2, 2019
Originally published on March 6, 2019 10:28 am

Award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has a fresh take on the prep school experience in his new play, Choir Boy. He tells NPR's Michel Martin about making his Broadway debut. Read a Web version of this interview.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, even if you didn't go to prep school, you might have read a novel or seen a play or movie inspired by them, from "Catcher In The Rye" to "The History Boys" to "The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie." Now award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has made his Broadway debut with his own fresh take. It's called "Choir Boy."

But instead of a gathering place for the WASP elite, the school in "Choir Boy" has an all-black student body. The Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys says it wants to raise strong, ethical black men. "Choir Boy" focuses on Pharus Young, the lead of the school choir. He's a talented scholarship student who is the target of vicious anti-gay bullying by another boy, Bobby, the nephew of the headmaster. It's a coming-of-age-drama deeply infused with African-American culture, including powerful hymn singing and impressive step dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CHOIR BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Rockin' Jerusalem, rockin' Jerusalem, rockin' Jerusalem, ringing them bells. Higher, Jerusalem. Ring them bells.

MARTIN: And joining us now to talk about "Choir Boy" is playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Tarell, thank you so much for joining us.

TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I just have to say, congratulations on all your success. And I also want to know when you sleep because you are a very busy man. Just to remind people, you co-wrote the Oscar-winning movie "Moonlight" with Barry Jenkins, which is based on an autobiographical play. You wrote the screenplay for Netflix's "High Flying Bird." And on top of all of that, you are the chair and professor of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. So when do you sleep?

MCCRANEY: On the train ride here, I think.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCCRANEY: I kind of passed out for a couple of seconds. But thank you for having me, and thanks so much. It's always - you know, it's always a pleasure to talk to you.

MARTIN: It's a - I'm reminded of that line from "Hamilton," which is that you were sort of writing as if your life depends on it.

MCCRANEY: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Is that how it feels to you?

MCCRANEY: Well, my life does depend on it. And I think the life of my community and most communities depends on the storytellers. We only know anything about the Roman Empire or about the lives of the people within the Greek polis from the plays that exist. We can find out from historical archives what laws were in place, but who they affected and how they affected those folks and those people - we only know from the stories and from the storytellers of that culture.

And so, you know, for me, from the kid from Liberty City, if I don't continue to try and write down and pin down the conflicts, the loves, the hates, the things we want most in our - from my community, people can easily say we don't exist.

MARTIN: The idea of setting this play at a prep school for boys - a prestigious, all-male, all-black prep school for boys - is so fascinating because it brings in so many ideas. I mean, as we said, it's the coming-of-age story, but it's also the story about class and people coming from different places. And it's also the story about sexuality and trying to understand who you are. Do you mind if I ask how you came up with that idea?

MCCRANEY: Sure. You know, coming of age is a hard story to tell because it's so individual. I mean, we all do it, and we all - but we all do it in so many ways, you know. And particularly black men in America - I wanted to isolate that threshold and that moment. And then, again, you get into the notion of class, meaning, who are the talented tenth? How are they identified? Who do we point to and say, these folks will lead us into another - these will be our leaders for tomorrow, right? And who does that selecting and why?

And so it was interesting to me to try to put - you know, if we're going to look at the experiment of the American dream, we need to do the case study on folks who are in one place and have the same variables, which is this school. They all want to be here. They all want to excel. They all want to do well and be thought of as good in this school. But how much of the school is allowing them to be their best self?

MARTIN: One of the things that I also found fascinating about the play and also very moving is that, you know, nobody is any one thing. And one of the things that's really moving is the relationship between Pharus and his roommate, AJ, who's - he's tall, he's athletically built. I mean, he kind of fits the sort of - you know, the desired profile, right, that people are sort of being held up to. Does - if that, you know, makes sense. He's a, you know, stand-out athlete. He can sing. He's - but he's also got a very tender and protective side. And I just want to play this clip of Pharus and AJ. We witness Bobby picking on Pharus, and Pharus is running the school choir, and so he kicks Bobby out. And those of us who saw the earlier bullying think he's perfectly justified in doing so. But AJ is going to discuss it with him. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CHOIR BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Pharus) The devil is a liar. I did not kick that mean boy out the choir 'cause he could sing better than me. I asked him to leave because he is disruptive. You heard Bobby call me out my name.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As AJ) What? David called you worse last year.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Pharus) Yeah. But he apologized. And you've just got it in for David.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As AJ) I just don't believe his conversion is 100. Y'all used to bicker all the time. He was always cussing. What's with the besties act this year?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Pharus) The Lord works in mysterious ways.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As AJ) But the devil has a tireless mind. Don't make no fool of Bobby Marrow, man.

MARTIN: What's going on here?

MCCRANEY: Well, I think, you know, and as you said before, none of these characters are one thing. And I think you start as a young person to realize what you can and can't bring to the table. A.J. is becoming aware of his privilege. In that moment, he is - he sees that because of the way he looks and the way he behaves, his portraiture of masculinity, he's allowed to say and do things, in a way. And later on in the play, we see that happen, right? What can he talk about in the locker room that Pharus can't? And I think it's important that he is at once trying to protect Pharus, but at the same time, he is restricting Pharus. He's saying, look, you have to be careful - more careful than I would have to be in this situation.

MARTIN: What role do the adults play in this play? I think normally, in plays that are about coming-of-age experience or particularly about coming out, you know, you've got one adult who's - represents, you know, the strictures of the world as it is, and then you've got another adult who's trying to be an ally. Again, in this play, it isn't so neat. So how would you describe the adult role? There's the headmaster, and then there's a white teacher who it emerges was a - kind of a very highly esteemed civil rights activist back in the day.

MCCRANEY: I love the fact that you say that there's a kind of trope of what usually happens. There's the kind of strictures and the ally. And what more often than not happens for young people at this point in their life or at this turning point is that people represent what society holds up. The headmaster is infinitely trying to protect the legacy of the school for the future generations, as he's been mandated to do. But in that stricture, in the role of that job, what does that mean to the students who are trying to make their own individual path? How are they being blocked? How does a school that hasn't been set up to make room for the LGBTQI community make room for Pharus, who has a queer body?

MARTIN: So a couple of things - I don't want to gloss past how important the music is to this piece, the music and the step routines.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CHOIR BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I couldn't hear nobody pray. Lord, I couldn't hear nobody pray. Oh, way down yonder by myself, and I couldn't hear nobody pray.

MARTIN: Was it always your - in your mind that those elements would be important to the play? And what role do they play? And why is it so important to you that that be represented in the play?

MCCRANEY: Well, the music has always been important to me in that, you know, the legacy that we are handed down as artists come directly from the Negro spiritual.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CHOIR BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I couldn't hear nobody pray. I couldn't hear nobody pray. I couldn't hear nobody pray. Hallelujah. I couldn't hear nobody pray. Crossing over...

MCCRANEY: We can chart where jazz and gospel, even r&b, come from this very important music that was made by our ancestors in the fields or in the house or in the - in domestic trade, in their labor. But even in protest - I mean, these are the songs that they sang on the bridge in Selma, you know? These are the songs that have held us up. "Turn Me Round," "Eye On The Prize" (ph) - all of those are part of that legacy as well. And they go back so deep that they are both spiritual, political and personal for all of us. And what does it mean to hand that legacy down - what's important to me?

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CHOIR BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I hear rockin' in the land, rockin' in the land and ringin' them bells. I know my Lord is rockin' in the land, rockin' in the land and ringin' them bells.

MARTIN: That's award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCready. His debut Broadway play, "Choir Boy," produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, is showing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre until March 10.

Tarell Alvin McCraney, thank you so much for talking to us.

MCCRANEY: And thank you. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.