Book by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Royal Court Theatre, London SW1, now transfering to the Manhattan Theatre Club.
After the unmentionable American Trade for the RSC, it is great to see Tarell Alvin McCraney return to form. One of the rising stars of American theater, he’s a young black male voice with great sense of assurance and an ear for poetry. His Brother/Sister trilogy is a landmark of new theatre writing of the past 20 years.
As usual with McCraney, he aims high, and this one is set in an all male, all black American prep school where he uses gospel refrains to explore the politics of minority and masculinity.
Determined to make his mark, young Pharus (Dominic Smith) is hell bent on being the best choir leader in the school’s fifty-year history. But there are obstacles: first of all, he is gay, which is just about tolerable in this milieu, but more troublingly, he is also rather effeminate, which isn’t. For Headmaster Morrow (Gary McDonald) there’s a lot riding on this showcase concert in terms of attracting wealthy funders, and a camp soloist will not “set the right tone”.
Pharus’s articulacy and intelligence make it easier for the author to tease out the contradictions in everyone’s position than if he were just shy or dim, and it makes one ponder how minorities always have to be brilliant in these circumstances and can’t be just ordinary. An interesting dimension is added in that Smith’s portrayal of the central protagonist didn’t really render him that likeable. Despite being up against smug bully Bobby (Eric Kofi Abrefa), who is secure in his attitudes as he’s the nephew of the headmaster, Pharus’s abrasiveness challenges our expectations for a hero. McCraney lands on some really fertile ground here, namely how some people’s protestations that they’re not homophobic rubs up against their obvious aversion to effeminacy. As Pharus puts it “I can’t ever make them respect me”.
A rare weak point was the portrayal of the headmaster’s clumsy reaction to homophobic bullying, which surely can’t ring true in a modern boarding school. A crafty headmaster must have better strategies.
Race issues are also key as, unusually, are class, as the students are mostly poor scholarship boys burdened with a responsibility to deliver for their communities. McCraney introduces one white character, a wise old professor Mr Pendleton (David Burke in twinkling form) “who marched with Dr King” and is brought in to instruct the boys in creative thinking. There is even a neat history lesson when an argument rages over whether traditional black spirituals had been clandestine instructions designed to help slaves escape. Pharus’s eloquent and learned debunking of that theory, espoused by Bobby, sets him further apart.
McCraney’s masterstroke, however, is to tell the story through the prism of gospel music. Under the musical direction of Colin Vassell, the young actors transformed into a convincing vocal quartet, whose a capella harmonies were beautifully woven into the action. It almost made the piece a musical and certainly blurred the barriers, something McCraney is a master at.
Designer Ultz cleverly turned the tiny studio at the Royal Court into a convincing school with the audience ranked in four small sections like parents at a graduation ceremony, and the piece has the potential to be staged on a much larger scale. Director Dominic Cooke gave it a clear focus and this really helped a work of such great ambition.
The Royal Court production is now over. The play transfers to the Manhattan Theatre Club in the spring.