In the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight,” stage dramas like “The Brother/Sister Plays” and “Wig Out!,” and his new television series “David Makes Man,” the writer Tarell Alvin McCraney has mined his own personal autobiography to explore the tensions between queer sexuality and traditional notions of masculinity in the black community. In his play “Choir Boy,” now getting a production at SpeakEasy Stage Company, he again delves into that conflict, this time at an all-boys African-American prep school. A coming-of-age tale that was nominated for a 2019 Tony for best play, the piece centers on the funny, exuberant, and wholly unique character of Pharus, whose sexuality is undeclared but whose effeminate mannerisms and garrulous personality the other boys clock as gay.
Maurice Emmanuel Parent, the Elliot Norton Award-winning actor who’s directing “Choir Boy,” knows intimately the struggles that Pharus faces. “I understand the unease of Pharus going through the world,” says Parent, who is gay. “I would look at how straight men walk and talk and do my best to imitate it.”
Parent says he relates to being a young black gay boy, not yet out of the closet but aware of his burgeoning sexuality, inhabiting spaces like black churches and black barbershops that are supposed to be safe zones “in opposition to the racist systems of oppression in our society,” but that aren’t always welcoming to LGBTQ people.
“Pharus has this monologue about the barbershop, about not feeling comfortable in that space where black men are supposed to feel at home, and I lived that growing up every time I would go get my hair cut. I couldn’t be my true self in those kinds of spaces. So I think there’s pain there with those of us who had to hide ourselves.”
Laced with singing and dancing, “Choir Boy” is set in the confines of the elite Charles R. Drew Prep School, where Pharus has been voted lead of the school’s legendary choir, a role that he approaches with an imperious zeal. “Pharus is extremely devoted to the culture and legacy of the school, as well as the church and his religion,” Parent says. “He’s witty, but he can sometimes be mean, which I think are his survival tactics.”
Isaiah Reynolds, who plays Pharus, calls the character “a natural-born leader” and says he appreciates his bravery and candor. “I love how saucy he is. It’s so fun to just let it all hang out. He says everything that’s on his mind, but I think that’s what gets him in trouble all the time, because he doesn’t really have a filter.”
Among the other characters are Pharus’s loyal and compassionate roommate AJ (Jaimar Brown), a strapping athlete who defends and supports Pharus but also wants him to tone down his confrontational behavior; Bobby (Malik Mitchell), a legacy student and the nephew of the headmaster who bullies Pharus; Junior (Aaron Patterson), Bobby’s jokester sidekick; and David (Dwayne P. Mitchell), a wannabe pastor and scholarship student who can’t afford to let his grades slip or get in any trouble.
It’s important, Parent explains, not to “judge any of the other characters too harshly,” including Bobby, because everyone has a story. “I love all the different slices of black masculinity in this play,” he says. “And we know that issues of machismo and strength developed as a response to systems of oppression. But there’s still negative byproducts, like homophobia, of that survival technique for people who don’t fit the traditional definition of masculinity, and that’s what the play speaks to.”
Inside a rehearsal hall at the Calderwood Pavilion, the voices of the young cast echo through the room as they sing the mournful spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” As the cast wraps up the song, Parent reminds the actors that the song is about isolation, that they are playing boys at a boarding school who are disconnected from their families. He advises them to think about who their character is singing to in that moment, what they want, and how they can connect. “Sing to someone who is actually in your life,” he says. “Allow your body to react to your thoughts.” When the boys belt it out again, the result is goosebump-inducing, and the whole room comes to a standstill.
“The history of spirituals is that they’re born out of struggle on a plantation, and that struggle is mirrored in the play,” says David Freeman Coleman, the show’s music director. “I saw immediately the parallel that [McCraney] was making of feeling alone and needing to sing out. Singing is a spiritual release, and the fact that they sing together is exactly how slaves survived the torment they were going through. They had to meet together to share their joys, share their struggles, to sing and dance.”
The singing in the play often underscores or illuminates what’s happening in the storytelling. “The play really does move and feel like a musical to me,” Coleman says.
When Manhattan Theatre Club mounted a new production of “Choir Boy” on Broadway in 2019 (it originally premiered there in 2013), step-dancing sequences were added to the show. Stepping, a staple of African-American fraternities and sororities, is a percussive style of movement featuring military-like formations, in which dancers use their whole bodies as an instrument to produce a cacophony of rhythm and sound.
For the SpeakEasy production, co-choreographers Ruka White and Yewande Odetoyinbo added elements of modern dance, hip-hop, Afro-jazz, and vogueing, which White feels “elevates the entire production in a more rounded way.”
“Vogueing and ballroom culture became this place for young men of color who had been kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality to find a safe haven where they could be embraced and find community,” he says.
To Parent, the questions at the heart of the play are “who defines what it means to be a strong black man? And if you don’t fit those definitions, are you less than as a black man, just because you have different longings or don’t subscribe to these hypermasculine ideals?
“I think the play comes down on that question through Pharus as: [Expletive] no, absolutely not.”
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 12. Tickets from $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com