Kelsey holds a BFA in Theatre Studies and a BS in Cinema/Media Studies from the U of I in Champaign-Urbana. She’s a freelance dramaturg, most recently working with Circle Theatre’s Venus in Fur. Kelsey believes in theater’s ability to change the world. A mix of wit and lit.
Pictured (l-r): Patrick Agada, Darren Patin, Christopher W. Jones, Julian Terrell Otis and Tamarus Harvell. Photo by Dean La Prairie.
By Kelsey McGrath
Kicking off Raven Theatre’s 35th season is the Chicago premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s CHOIR BOY. This coming-of-age drama follows Pharus (Christopher W. Jones), who “is hell-bent on being the best choir leader in his prep school’s 50-year history.” As the press summary explains, “First, he must gain the respect of his peers, but he’s an outsider in a world of ritual and tradition.”
It is imperative to lift up these spaces, these lives, and these experiences. And I applaud Raven for their mindfulness in deciding their season. However, we, as a community, are still trying to figure out how to embrace these stories in a way that’s honest, representative, and mindful of the typical theatre demographic.
CHOIR BOY is inherently theatrical and heady. The play discusses the meaning of African American spirituals and their surrounding ritual. It repeatedly questions, “Would you rather be feared or respected?” The songs are sung throughout play with “showmanship” and challenge our suspension of disbelief. But, stakes get lost among the ideological discussion. In this production, the driving conflict was muddled and the relationships surrounding Pharus aren’t clear. The work lands in a “slice of life” place, merely illustrating the day-to-day of a queer black boy in a prep school, until a seemingly unfounded offstage fight scene. Pharus isn’t much of an outsider in this production. From the top, he feels liked and included. It echoes ordinary banter among high school boys. He may be searching, but he was supported. By his headmaster, by the quirky white teacher, and by his classmates. This lack of alienation relegated the story’s driving conflict.
It’s difficult to synthesize from where the urgency of the story gets lost. Under the guidance of Raven Theatre Artistic Director Michael Menendian, the show has a start and stop feel, leaving the audience unsure of what’s important. Production design had highlights. JoAnn Montemurro’s costume design and Ray Toler’s set design were aesthetically beautiful and brought the school to life.
Ultimately, this production is one of exploration and trial as we, as a theatre community, strive to make better art. And this effort is important to support and question and reflect on and grow from.
CHOIR BOY runs through November 12th. For more information visit raventheatre.com.