The Philadelphia Theater Company is giving “Choir Boy” its local premiere, after the play opened on Broadway in 2018 and won the Tony Award for Best Play.
It’s a coming-of-age story by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney about a group of boys approaching adulthood at a prestigious prep school for all-black boys. A central character is Pharus, who enjoys the coveted position of leader of the school’s gospel choir. Pharus is gay, facing pressure from his classmates and the school’s deep-seated traditions.
At the Philadelphia Theater Company, director Jeffrey L. Page said he extended the gay teenager’s sexual orientation to a story about life outside the historical norms of an institution.
“We’ve come to understand ‘queer’ in some terms, but the terms that we associate with being is not the word,” Page said. “Queer is an alternative to societal norms. It’s strange in the Brechtian sense: a strange approach to something is strange.
Page says that’s why it’s the right game at the moment.
“We all have a weirdness about ourselves, in the best sense. We are also afraid of our homosexuality, of our strangeness. We hide it,” he said. “That idea germinated with the upheaval in society right now, with racial politics and gender politics.”
Music is at the heart of Choir Boys. Although technically not a musical – it is a “game with music” in which the singing occurs organically in a narrative about a gospel choir – it has the feel of a musical. Traditional gospel songs are selected and performed to resonate with the character’s feelings, sometimes delivered with the aggressive percussion of a collegiate pitch team.
“I think it gives us a new way to see what music can do for society in terms of protest and disruption,” Page said. “How are we nourished by music? How are we emboldened by music? I think that’s the fate of Pharus. I think he draws great strength from music.
The New York-based director and choreographer has had his work spanning from Joe’s Pub in New York to the National Black Theater festival, to collaborating with Jazmine Sullivan and Beyonce. A year and a half ago, Page was named artist-in-residence at the Philadelphia Theater Company. “Choir Boys” is his first production for PTC.
Over the past year and a half, Page said his work for PTC has focused primarily on bridging the gap between the company’s programming decisions and the wider community.
“I tried to find ways for the Philadelphia Theater Company to create sharing systems between the community and the organization,” he said. “I believe that a theater is a community theater, and therefore the voices of the community must come together to determine what must be shared, what must be taught.”
Page is not new to Philadelphia. Growing up in Indiana, he came to the city to attend University of the Arts, was mentored by the late theater artist Walter Dallas, and worked at the New Freedom Theater on North Broad Street.
He says he also attended ‘Black Lily University’. The Black Lily was a weekly live music showcase at the former Five Spot jazz club, from 2000 to 2005. Shortly after, in 2007, the Old City club burned down.
The Black Lily featured a wide range of music and performers like jazz singer Jill Scott, poet Ursula Rucker and R&B duo Jazzfatnastees. This had a profound influence on Page, who calls the Black Lily “church”.
“Remember, I’m this little boy from Indiana, am I? I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know this music could go with this music, this idea could go with that idea.’ I didn’t know that this smart group of people could be mixed with this smart group of people,” he said. “It exploded in my mind and influenced everything. It influenced my way of doing theatre, my way of doing choreography, my way of thinking.
Page has since moved to Los Angeles and New York, and gone international as a director and choreographer for hire; he is often asked to work in Japan. He says his longer association with the Philadelphia Theater Company fostered artistic “boldness”.
“We are constantly auditioning for roles, for our ideas. That’s the name of the game,” Page said. “But because you’ve established a vibe with the people in the organization, they know what they’re getting into and you know what you’re getting into. The audition phase and the politics of it all go away. I can finally create art without the weight of hoping someone understands what I’m doing. I feel confident. It gave me the ability to create some really bold moves.
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This article was first published on WHYY.org.