GRIPPING COMING OF AGE DRAMA WITH MUSIC
EXCELLENT CAPTIVATING CAST
Marin Theatre Company’s production of CHOIR BOY is the latest play by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s to grace the Bay Area. McCraney first was introduced at MTC back in 2010. MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis says “We first brought Tarell’s work to the Bay Area in 2010 with ‘The Brother/Sister Plays’ trilogy and our production of In the Red and Brown Water. With Choir Boy, we are also reuniting Tarell with director Kent Gash, who has directed both the playwright’s Choir Boy and The Brothers Size. Kent’s work was last seen on our stage with August Wilson’s Seven Guitars". McCraney is a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” and also wrote "Head of Passes", which just finished its celebrated run at Berkeley Rep. He is one of the most important young playwrights and it is exciting to see the Bay Area Premiere of another of his shows come to Marin.
Set in a modern day college prep private school for boys, this is a intense coming-of-age story tied into the school choir. Jelani Alladin is excellent as the lead choir student Pharus, a gay teenager who has become accustomed to the bullying around campus. Alladin is wonderful in the role and has a voice to fit this performance. Pharus main bully is fellow choir boy Bobby, and the headmasters nephew, well played by Dimitri Woods. Ken Robinson plays the blind headmaster, who at times provides some comic relief from this drama by his denial of the homophobic issues on his campus.
The other choir boys include Forest Van Dyke as David who plans on being a minister but is struggling with his grades. Rotimi Agbabiaka as Junior who is close to Bobby, and just doing his best to stay in the middle. Rotimi blends well and has an excellent south african dialect. A delight in the cast is local favorite Jaysen Wright who plays Anthony, Pharus’ trusted compassionate roommate and best friend. Charles Shaw Robinson is the sole white man in the cast and he expertly portrays Mr. Pendleton, a teacher that comes out of retirement to help the school, as the new choir monitor he encourages the boys to think more openly and this sets off the tension that has been kept inside the boys.
Director Kent Gash (who also helmed the world premiere in Washington D.C.) works well with the materials he is given and the staging aptly utilizes the unorthodox set (Jason Sherwood) of five doors opening onto a circular platform where most of the action takes place. The door arches later become working showers for the boys to sing from while they bath. My impression from the publicity material was that this would be a music-heavy exploration of a homophobic fight over leadership of the school choir at an African American all-male boarding school. The play in performance is much darker and the conflict over who leads the choir brings in powerful songs. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is performed while the boys shower. Thankfully this cast handles the heavy content well, and the play’s 100 minute runtime kept the energy and pace up.
This cast is full of powerful singers with a lot of tough acting to do. MTC brings two of the original cast to this production, Jelani Alladin, and Jaysen Wright, who both deliver an exceptionally strong performance and have the kinds of voices their roles require, with Alladin bringing the roof down with some of his solos. Other highpoints are the hysterical Rotimi Agbabiaka as Junior, who brings some much-needed comic relief and also has a show stopping voice. Van Dyke acting is fine, he has an extraordinary voice that fills out group numbers and soars solo. Dimitri Wood as the belligerent antagonist Bobby completes the school choir. The adult actors disappear perfectly into their roles, with Ken Robinson as the Headmaster has one song near the end of the show that makes you wish he’d been singing the whole time. It is a masterwork.
Darius Smith is the music director and the moments of a cappella gospel are the backbone and strength of the show. Costume Designer Callie Floor expresses each character’s personality despite their school uniforms she uses their shoes as their color and character. Kurt Landisman lighting design, has a dark pools of color and shadows for the shower scenes so moody and perfect, and the creates the pathos of certain moments. Chris Houston the sound designer, his music transitions can be jarring but effective. The acapella provided by the boys under the direction Smith fills the MTC theatre
This is an exciting and controversial new play with music that brings up a lot of current issues and events and tells a compelling story. An amazing moment in this true American theatre when McCraney and Alladin realize that a simple moment the we all wish for, that we matter and are loved. Its a stunning scene and Tarell Alvin is brilliant at capturing this moment in his script. The timing of this run is perfect for the Bay Area since its Pride 45, yet the focus of the gay issues transcends the other powerful elements of his story. This excellent production closes out yet another standing ovation 48th season at MTC. The strength of CHOIR BOY and its talented company and the music that they perform elevate this show to create an evening you will remember.
By Tarell Alvin, Directed by Kent Gash
Through June 28
Evenings - Tue, Thu, Fri, Sat @ 8pm * Wed @ 7:30pm * Sun @ 7pm
Matinees - Sun @ 2pm * Sat 6/13 & 6/27 @ 2pm * Thu 6/18 @ 1pm
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA 94941
Photos by Kevin Berne
A clip from the show