Review: Choir Boy at Steppenwolf Is a Splendid Spectacle With a Flawed Script

It’s not easy growing up as a gay Black boy. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play Choir Boy is the story of Pharus, a high school senior at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, as he seeks meaning and clarity in his own identity and prepares for a world that he knows will not always welcome him. Kent Gash directs this splendid staging of McCraney’s Tony-nominated play at Steppenwolf Theatre. The five young men who play Pharus and his fellow students give soul-stirring performances and also sing a cappella gospel hymns, often smartly choregraphed, throughout the drama. Choir Boy is a thrilling night of theater although the script itself does not match the quality of the staging.

Pharus Young is played with spirit and intensity by former understudy Jos. N. Banks, who took over the role on July 1 after Tyler Hardwick left the cast. (Steppenwolf did not explain his departure, only that it was “due to unforeseen circumstances.”)

Headmaster Marrow is a committed and animated school leader, played by La Shawn Banks, a veteran actor who has been seen frequently in Chicago, as well as at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and nationally. The headmaster is concerned about the reputation of his school and its prestigious choir, and about the 50th anniversary graduation ceremony coming up.  

La Shawn Banks, Samuel B. Jackson, Gilbert Domally. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Pharus is named choir lead and he leans into that role with vigor. He’s a talented tenor with knowledge of spiritual music (as we learn later in the play). AJ (Sheldon D. Brown) is his athletic roommate and Drew baseball star. Homophobe Bobby (Gilbert Domally) is Pharus’ nemesis and  also the nephew of Headmaster Marrow. David (Richard David), who plans to be a pastor, and Junior (Samuel B. Jackson), just developing his baritone voice, complete the choir. 

The Choir Boy story—the senior year of these boys at the Drew private school—focuses on Pharus and his quest to live with his sexual identity and gain respect. We’re also treated to several scenes in a new class taught by Mr. Pendleton (William Dick), who taught at Drew forever and now is back to teach the boys how to think, argue and prepare for college. In one scene, he coaches David in his paper on how capitalism is grounded in the violence of slavery.  

In his turn, Pharus poses his theories on spirituals and whether they literally included coded messages detailing how enslaved people could escape to freedom, as some believe.  Pharus says, following the history of spirituals, that’s how “You could hear how ‘keep your hand on the plow’ / Later became ‘keep your eyez on the prize / And resulted in ‘yes we can…’”

Tyler Hardwick, Sheldon D. Brown, Gilbert Domally and Richard David. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Many scenes in Choir Boy are visually compelling. A regular task, called out by the headmaster, is “Alright, phones out! 30 minutes! Call home!” We learn bits of family relations, as spotlights focus on each boy in turn. In the first phone-home scene, threads of “Rockin’ in Jerusalem”  play in the background; at the end of the scene, the boys perform a joyously choreographed version. (Choreography by Byron Easley.) Other memorable musical numbers are “Boyz to Men” and “Motherless Child.” 

Arnel Sancianco’s brilliant scenic design uses arched entryways to suggest the classic architecture of the Drew building. The arches serve other purposes, too, as in the locker room scene, when each arch becomes a shower and the boys shower, cloaked in steamy mist and water. (Lighting design by Jason Lynch.) \

The stars of Choir Boy are the actors, the staging and the music (musical direction by Jermaine Hill and sound design by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca). Costumes are by Kara Harmon.

McCraney’s writing is poetic, as we’ve seen in his earlier works, such as Head of Passes, Ms. Blakk for President (co-written with Tina Landau), and the film Moonlight, co-written with director Barry Jenkins. But there are holes and inconsistencies in Choir Boy, as logic gaps in story or character are filled in abruptly or not at all. Speaking of characters, Pharus seems a fully fleshed-out character (we even learn why he refuses to go to barber shops) but the other characters are paper dolls with one attribute each. And the play’s ending happens too quickly; another 30 seconds might have clarified and sealed the mood. 

Choir Boy continues at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., through July 24. Running time is 100 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday. Tickets are $20–$98; buy them online or call the box office at 312-335-1650. Proof of vaccination and personal ID are required for admission; masks must be worn over nose and mouth while you are in the building.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!