Gash is the director of “Choir Boy,” which opened Wednesday at the playhouse on 14th Street. Written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, on the surface, it is a coming of age tale at a historically black prep school. But the larger message of the production is more dynamic: The seven-man cast tells a story that centers on the nuanced narrative about the world of black boys living and matriculating together at a tight-knit boarding school.
At times the play is honest and searing: There are N-words. There are gay slurs. There is cursing. There is comedy. There are themes of domestic violence. There is male frontal nudity. This is the story of five young men who are frightened of failure, complex in nature, alone while together and, ultimately, friends.
“It is not a play that proselytizes about ‘this is the way a black man should be’,” Gash said in December after an afternoon rehearsal. “In fact, it’s engaging that question. And asking us to recognize that we [as black males] are many, many things. There’s a line in the play: ‘We are fearfully and marvelously made.’ Well, that’s true. And we are many things. And the play is demanding that we reckon with that, and acknowledge it and embrace it.”
The rich identities of young black males, who in the play deal with universal impulses such as fear and revenge, are exactly what McCraney specializes in highlighting. His own life story took him from a housing project in Miami to the Yale School of Drama, and his themes of identity are present in all his work. With “Choir Boy,” his goal was to show the wide array of identities that people who look like me are so rarely assumed to have.
“The play itself is asking us to see that all of these young men are complex, are full human beings, are, as a donor said the other night, ‘as complex as the 13.8 billion years of stardust that make us up,’” McCraney said. “The moment we stop thinking about that, the moment we look at any individual human as just simple plain what we think or have been told they are, we then stop allowing their humanity.”
That might be jarring for some, especially in today’s mainstream media landscape, in which the lives of black males are often depicted as singular and without complexity. Jaysen Wright, who plays AJ, said one of the play’s aims is to confront the typical tropes associated with black men.
“It’s really, really exciting to have a play that builds bridges,” Wright said. “That just shows a group of young black boys, being young boys, being people, not being thugs, not being killers. I think that’s important. Because I think there’s this perception, that’s all we are. And we’re a lot more than that, we’re a lot more complicated than that.”
The play is led by a healthy amount of soulful a capella singing, as organized by music director Darius Smith. As it explores black male identity, it also confronts homophobia in the black community, as Pharus, the play’s main character, struggles to decide how to manage gay slurs hurled at him as he sings in a school ceremony. His journey, as he struggles to deal with his peers, is neither easy nor obvious.
“What was exciting about the play was that these types of characters are finally getting a voice and getting to be seen by a broader audience,” Wright added.
“Choir Boy” couldn’t have debuted at a better time. On the same night the curtain raised, Fox unveiled “Empire,” a new hip-hop-themed drama series, to 9.8 million viewers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it featured the stereotypes of black men that we have become accustomed to: The main character, for instance, is the former-drug-dealer-turned-record-company-mogul, his son an alcoholic and a rapper.
“A play like this is about acceptance of human life. And what is the value you attach to it. And is your value defined by color or sexual orientation? Or is your value defined by the fact that they have a heart,” said Marty Austin Lamar, who plays Headmaster Marrow, and is director of Music and Worship Arts at Metropolitan AME Church. Referring to the black male characters, he added: “They have a spirit and they have blood that runs through their veins, just like yours runs through yours. Then, at what point, do you then assign a greater number or a greater value to this life as opposed to another’s life?”
After seeing “Choir Boy,” you’ll wonder why you hadn’t asked yourself this question before.