The four years that young adults spend in high school are widely recognized as some of the most formative (and cringeworthy) years of their lives. It’s a space where they come face to face with their insecurities on a daily basis. For many, this space is a common site for first-time struggles related to academics, identity, and sexuality.
This is undoubtedly the case at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for the Boys, the fictional setting for the new staging of the Tony Award-nominated play Choir Boy by Steppenwolf ensemble member (and Oscar winner for best adapted screenplay for Moonlight) Tarell Alvin McCraney. The production, directed by Kent Gash, follows high school senior Pharus Young (Tyler Hardwick) and four of his peers. Together, they navigate life as young Black men attending a prestigious and painstakingly traditional boarding school.
Through 7/24: Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 8 PM; also Wed 7/13, 2:30 PM; Sun 7/17 and 7/24, 3 PM only; Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$98
While the five boys are far from the best of friends, they all sing in the school choir. For Pharus in particular, choir is an essential artistic outlet, as he struggles to reconcile his queer identity with the stifling, outright homophobic environment of Drew Prep.
McCraney’s script is sharp and poignant, allowing the cast to flourish in their respective roles as their characters bare their souls to the audience. While every Choir Boy actor shines fully in his own right, a standout performance comes from Sheldon D. Brown, who plays AJ, Pharus’s roommate. Thanks to Brown’s portrayal, AJ becomes a rock not just for Pharus, but for the entire audience as he demonstrates the invaluable nature of empathy and humor.
McCraney’s words are only amplified by the breathtaking inclusion of a cappella gospel hymns that pay homage to historically Black traditions and struggles. Additional memorable aspects of the production include dynamic step-inspired choreography by Byron Easley and innovative set design from Arnel Sancianco.
For far too long, many coming-of-age stories have done a poor job of centering the experiences of young Black men, especially as it relates to queerness. This is not the case for Choir Boy. McCraney’s work is a refreshing and bold take on a classic tale with grit and undeniable soul.