When director Peter Rothstein first read “Choir Boy,” Tarell Alvin McCraney’s one-act play chronicling a year at an all-black boys’ school, he knew immediately he wanted to do it.
Sure, he’d never staged a McCraney play before — the playwright’s Brother/Sister trilogy was memorably directed at the Guthrie over multiple years by Marion McClinton under the aegis of Pillsbury House Theatre and the Mount Curve Company. And Rothstein did not have a deep knowledge of the spirituals and hymns that undergird the action of the play.
But he knew it was a good story, “full of poetry and clarity.” Besides, as he said, “Choir Boy,” which makes its regional premiere Friday in the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, “is about blackness, yes, but it’s also about coming of age as a gay man, and who’s to say if it’s more black than gay, or gay than black?”
The action partly revolves around two roommates, one of whom is clearly gay. When the charismatic Pharus gets a plum appointment as the choir director, a bully launches into action.
“The play lacks pretension, but it is incredibly potent, deep, insightful and profound,” Rothstein said. “It’s so smart, it just keeps revealing itself as this teenager confronts his sexuality alongside his straight ally.
“When we look at gay progress, straight allies are profoundly important, as we saw recently in Minnesota history,” with the defeat of a proposed ban on same-sex marriage.
The cast includes Nathan Barlow, who was in the McCraney trilogy; Penumbra veteran James A. Craven, who got his start at the Guthrie 45 years ago, and Robert Dorfman, who was in the landmark Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s AIDS-themed “The Normal Heart.”
The creative team for “Choir Boy” includes movement director Austene Van and esteemed arranger and composer Sanford Moore as music director. Moore said he hopes that the music will not only support the story but also reveal the complicated inner lives of these characters.
“The music, which is all a cappella, plays many roles in the show,” Moore said. “There are places where the action is contradicted by the songs and where it shows the young men’s vulnerability. This is a play about high school kids who are coming of age, maturing into themselves.
“The real character is supposed to be flamboyant and effeminate. The antagonist is a hard macho boy. And everyone is in the middle. That’s where the music is, most of the time.”
Rothstein and Moore stressed that the traditional songs, including “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Rockin’ Jerusalem,” are not contextualized in any way that could be considered blasphemous. Instead, they’re having fun peeling back the curtain on homophobia while celebrating black gay life in the church.
“It’s a fascinating play because it gets at some truths,” said Moore, himself a music director at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, one of the Twin Cities area’s biggest black congregations. “Everyone knows that some of these gospel singers and choir directors are gay. But you can’t talk about it. If you do, it’s coming out of the lane.”
Rothstein thinks that the play is revolutionary, but in a quiet way. “People are all wrestling with things, chafing up against things, in order to become who they are,” he said. “Pharus is in that place of growth and maturity, and with the help of his straight ally, he’ll become who he is to be.”