AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Kent Gash
Presented by Marin Theatre Company
Boyer Theatre
397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, CA / (415) 388-5208

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Five students at the all-black Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys try to find their way to adulthood through their studies and especially through its prestigious choir in Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Choir Boy" at Marin Theatre Company.

The title character is Pharus Jonathan Young (Jelani Alladin), whose homosexuality is an open secret at the boarding school. As the play opens, he's a junior singing the school hymn at the school's 49th graduation. He becomes distracted when someone in the background whispers slurs.

However, citing the school's honor code, he refuses to tell Headmaster Marrow (Ken Robinson) who it was.

In an effort to instill more unity among the boys the next fall, the headmaster asks a former Drew teacher, Mr. Pendleton (Charles Shaw Robinson), a white man, to teach a class of his choosing. He chooses critical thinking. Soon the boys are engaged in a lively debate about the role of spirituals among blacks both during the slavery era and today.

Other choir members are Pharus's nemesis, Bobby Marrow (Dimitri Woods), the headmaster's nephew; A.J. James (Jaysen Wright), an athlete and Pharus's kind, mature roommate; Junior Davis (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Bobby's sidekick; and David Heard (Forest Van Dyke), who wants to become a minister.

The choir is their unifying element as the young men evolve during the school year. Hence, they do a lot of wonderful a cappella singing, blending well. (Darius Smith is music director.)

Playwright McCraney is a talent to be reckoned with. Bay Area audiences may recall his "The Brother/Sister Plays" trilogy with MTC, Magic Theatre and American Conservatory Theater each presenting one of the plays. His "Head of Passes" was a hit for Berkeley Repertory Theatre this season.

"Choir Boy" is a noteworthy addition to his canon despite some underwriting for characters like David and Mr. Pendleton. The play includes a several-minute shower scene with full frontal nudity, but its significance becomes clear later.

Director Kent Gash keeps the action flowing smoothly, aided by an outstanding ensemble cast, especially Alladin as Pharus.

The set is by Jason Sherwood with lighting by Kurt Landisman, costumes by Callie Floor and sound by Chris Houston.

Concluding MTC's 2014-15 season, this 2012 play runs slightly more than 100 minutes with no intermission.

It's a thought-provoking, absorbing, coming of age story told with empathy, music, humor and drama.

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