When gay playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney came to Atlanta and the Alliance Theatre with his play “In the Red and Brown Water” back in 2008, he was still a playwright on the rise. That’s certainly not the case anymore.
His new “Choir Boy” is a New York rage and the show – a joint production between the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it bowed in August, and the Alliance Theatre, where it has just opened – has become a critical darling.
At the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys – a prestigious boarding school for African-American men in the South (“I say it’s Atlanta,” admits McCraney, although others say Virginia or other places) – young Pharus (Jeremy Pope) is finishing high school. He is also leader of the choir, which is the school’s fundraising mechanism and its trademark, but is the target of his classmates because he is highly effeminate. The character never actually says that he is gay.
“He doesn’t need to,” says the playwright. “His sexuality is assumed. How much of your sexuality can you express at 15 or 16 anyway? In a heterosexual scale, that’s when you’re just going out on dates.
“The assumption is about his femininity and how that doesn’t fit in the mold of what the school is. Their motto is preparing men for tomorrow. It’s a hard road but he finds a way to be who he is naturally, to think outside the box,” McCraney says.
“This tackles all the things about growing up, growing into manhood, as well as what it means to be black and male and the avenues one can go into.”
The playwright feels Pharus learns from being an outsider. McCraney credits a lot of inspiration for “Choir Boy” to growing up in the church, but a question posed to him recently really got his creative juices going.
“I started working in London and because Barack Obama was on the rise, I was asked what it meant to be black and male now – has the paradigm changed?” he recalls. “It was a fascinating question I had no answers for. The more questions I had the more plays came up. Four or five of my plays explore this in some large or small way.”
The playwright’s “In the Red and Brown Water,” part of the Alliance’s Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition series, won a Suzi Bass Award for Best Play. Since that time McCraney has been produced around the country.
He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, the Theater School at DePaul University, as well as the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Fla. He’s also an associate artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Warwicke, England, and an ensemble member at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.
McCraney has traveled to Georgia frequently. His family is from Milledgeville, although he grew up in Miami. He was in town for a reading of his play “Wig Out!” a few months ago and then again last week for the 10th anniversary of the Kendeda series.
Now a Chicago resident, he still feels a special connection to Atlanta audiences.
“Audiences here want real and beautiful, and they want soulful depictions of life,” he says. “When we did ‘Water’ in 2008, we had an incredible time. You can have a show where the elements are all there, but if the audience isn’t there to receive it, there is no call to respond, those things will fall flat. There have been times when the audiences here wanted to talk about the work during the show.”
He is especially proud that he’s been able to create three-dimensional gay and lesbian characters. “I don’t think there’s a show I’ve written that hasn’t had LGBT characters,” he says.
“Choir Boy” Alliance Theatre Through Oct. 13 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta, GA 30309 www.alliancetheatre.org
“Harmony” Through Oct. 6 at the Alliance Theatre www.alliancetheatre.com The Alliance is staging a revised version of the Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical about an all-male band in Germany in the 1920s.
Photo: A scene from ‘Choir Boy.’ (courtesy Alliance Theatre)