About the author:
Best known for his acclaimed trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, Tarell Alvin McCraney has been described as the heir to August Wilson's legacy and “without question, the hottest young playwright in America” by the Chicago Tribune. His play Head of Passes recently premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he is a member of the ensemble, and the 33-year-old Miami native will celebrate Manhattan Theatre Club's New York debut of Choir Boy on July 2 at New York City Center Stage II. McCraney has forged an international reputation, including an association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and London's Royal Court Theatre. Below, the in-demand playwright describes the genesis of Choir Boy, which centers on Pharus Jonathan Young, a young student at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys who wants nothing more than to take his rightful place as leader of the school’s legendary gospel choir—but in order to do that, he has to suppress essential aspects of his personality.
I like to deal with things in equal opposites. For example, the black male and the notion of coming of age: I’ve explored it in a couple of other plays, but in Choir Boy, I wanted to do it in the setting of institutions that the black community holds dear. We hold education very dear, and we also hold religion extraordinarily close to the heart of the community; not just because of its spiritual uplifting but also because of the political grounding that it has had. The black church serves as a spiritual anchor and a political anchor for the black community. And, in that tradition, we pass down a lineage of music, of an oral tradition, through young men who often must be duplicitous in nature.
We look at culturally effeminate boys, and we don’t talk about them as human beings. We think of them as great singers and extraordinary musicians and talents, but their lives, who they are as people, is left outside of our conversations or our cultural consciousness, even to this day—which struck me because it’s not like it happens in a vacuum. What we deem as effeminate or feminine traits start and continue early on. We try to mold and shape them into something else, and when it doesn’t happen, we get silent about it.
That’s extraordinary to me, because I thought, "How is it possible that we can celebrate someone, celebrate what makes him individual, but also keep trying to make him somehow fit into the middle?” It’s a universal thing. It doesn’t just happen in the black community—it happens in all communities. I took this micro-idea and wanted to explore it and create dialogue around it. I think it hits on universal themes of individual versus the whole, but also very intimate ideas that are woven into specific communities of color.
Everything has an equal balance; we pass down Christian morals, what it means to be black and male and good and upstanding in America, and with those morals come all kinds of complications, not just spiritual. Pharus, the main character in Choir Boy, speaks about his individual faith, his faith in this Negro spiritual, as hope and joy in meters, in measures, but then in the next thought about what it means to be a man, to be human.
We sometimes eliminate people because of things that don’t fit into our religious or cultural context, and it’s damaging. I think we lose talents like Pharus because we’re not recognizing their full humanity. In the theater community, people say, “Are you crazy? Nobody thinks that way.” The audience has become extraordinarily diversified, and you can see where some people lean forward and other people look back with a little astonishment. That’s interesting to me: to understand that as Americans we fall on all sides of the spectrum on these questions, and to be in a room with people who have varying degrees of that—that conversation is important to me.
It’s funny: I would love to say that a lot of me is Pharus, but I was never that cool. At the same time, my brother once came to see a production of mine, and one of the actors asked him, “Who is Tarell in the play?” My brother was like, “They all are him. All of the characters are him.” I didn’t want him to say that because it was kind of like, “OK, don’t let the secret out.” But they all have qualities and points of view that I could attribute to myself, even though they contradict each other or clash in the play.
Most of the characters express my points of view or questions that I have. I rarely put something in a character’s mouth that I haven’t thought of or said myself. But I think that’s true of all playwrights; I don’t think I’m unique in that way. Pharus and the rest of my characters are built from people I have met or who have changed my opinions about things or have struck a chord with me that was different or new. They’re all me in a way—the ones you like and the ones you don’t like.