SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Choir Boy’’ has flaws, a few of them glaring. But you’re not likely to care very much when the titular ensemble swings into action.
It is then, during the red-jacketed cast’s excursions into stomping, hand-clapping, altogether dynamic performances of gospel, R&B, and traditional African-American spirituals, that “Choir Boy’’ speaks in its most expressive and resonant voice.
It is then, too, that a principal theme underlying Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Tony-nominated coming-of-age drama — the complexities that arise when young men try to forge individual identities within the charged atmosphere of a group — registers most vividly.
That theme is powerfully if sometimes choppily rendered in the play itself, directed at SpeakEasy in its New England premiere by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. (The superb choreography is by Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White, with razor-sharp music direction by David Freeman Coleman and excellent vocals by the eight actors who play the choir members.)
Anyone who saw Company One Theatre’s 2011 productions of McCraney’s remarkable Louisiana-set trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays’’ or last year’s staging of “Wig Out!,’’ his evocation of drag ball culture, knows that this immensely gifted writer conceives of plays as free-flowing, shape-shifting organisms, unconfined by the straitjacket of linear structure and open to the integration of nontextual elements such as music.
Because he is capable of inspired artistry, that stylistic freedom can make McCraney’s plays soar, transporting you in the process and delivering piercing moments of emotional truth. But there are also times when his plays are bedeviled by a sense of drift, a lack of narrative clarity or forward motion.
All of the above are true of “Choir Boy.’’
At the play’s center is Pharus, a gay student at the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys, who is played by Isaiah Reynolds with a blend of insouciance and vulnerability. Supremely confident when it comes to his role as newly elected leader of the African-American-oriented school’s highly competitive choir, Pharus is less so when it comes to his sexuality. About that, he seems to be at least partly in denial, saying at one point: “I’m sick of people calling me something I ain’t doing. I’m just Pharus.’’
But rival Bobby (a fiery Malik Mitchell) won’t let him just be Pharus, hissing homophobic epithets behind Pharus’s back as he is leading the choir in the school song. When that lands Bobby in hot water, he concludes that Pharus “snitched’’ on him and sets out to engineer Pharus’s ouster as choir leader. Later, more sparks fly when the two argue over whether African-American spirituals functioned as coded maps to freedom for slaves. Their ugliest confrontation comes still later, over directly personal matters, in a showdown meant to be climactic, though the scene’s rhythms are slightly off at SpeakEasy, diminishing its impact.
Still, it’s refreshing that Pharus refuses to be a victim; he fights back against attempts to diminish or erase him, using the weapon of his wit, which ranges from playful to cutting. But a gay youth nonetheless faces challenges when it comes to navigating “the Drew way,’’ and a hidden chapter of Pharus’s history makes his position within the school a precarious one.
McCraney smartly makes clear that Pharus is not the only one grappling with inner turmoil. Bobby has suffered a profound personal loss that could lie at the root of his anger; Junior (Aaron Patterson) faces a battle to get by academically due to reading difficulties; the sensitive David (Dwayne P. Mitchell), for reasons that may have to do with an episode in his past, seems unusually desperate to please his parents. Even Pharus’s athletic roommate, Anthony (Jaimar Brown, in a subtly fine-tuned performance) is trying to figure out something important about himself.
The shifting dynamics of “Choir Boy’’ encompass not just the students’ relationships with one another but also the way they try to define themselves via interactions with two adult authority figures. Unfortunately, those are the play’s weakest characters. Headmaster Marrow is played in stilted fashion at SpeakEasy by J. Jerome Rogers. The role of Mr. Pendleton, a white teacher, lacks definition, hampering the usually sure-footed Richard Snee and making it unclear how seriously the audience is meant to take Pendleton.
That’s not an issue when it comes to the prolific McCraney, or his work. An Oscar winner for “Moonlight’’ (based on his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’’), writer of the screenplay for Netflix’s “High Flying Bird,’’ and creator of OWN’s “David Makes Man,’’ he is to be taken very seriously indeed as a cultural force.
Play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Music direction, David Freeman Coleman. Choreography, Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 19. Tickets start at $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin