These days Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known as the writer whose semi-autobiographical story of growing up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami was the source of the 2017 Academy Award-winning film,”Moonlight.” But McCraney, a MacArthur Fellowship Award winner recently named chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, is primarily a creature of the theater.

‘CHOIR BOY’
Highly recommended
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: Raven Theater, 6157 N. Clark
Tickets: $43 – $46
Info: (773) 338-2177;
www.raventheatre.com
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Patrick Agada (from left), Julian Terrell Otis, Don Tieri and Christopher W. Jones in Raven Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “Choir Boy.” (Photo: Dean La Prairie)

A graduate of the DePaul Theatre School and Yale, who first caught my attention in 2004 as an actor in Northlight Theatre’s production of “Blue Orange,” McCraney subsequently became a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble. And his sense of how to make a story come alive on stage is now on vivid display thanks to Raven Theatre’s superb rendering of his 2012 play “Choir Boy,” directed by Michael Menendian (who did such a stellar job with “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys” a couple of seasons back).

“Choir Boy” is not the first play to tap into the tense world of an all-boys school; that has been the subject of great plays from from “Tea and Sympathy” to “The History Boys.” But it might just be the first to focus on an all-boys school whose students are solely African American. And while it deals with many of the classic issues (sex, competition, privilege, or the lack of it), a great array of other factors also become part of the mix, from attitudes toward homosexuality in the black community to the role of gospel music and hymns.

McCraney has set his story at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, where the goal is to mold ethically strong, academically exceptional young men ready for university life. (The exact time and place are never specified, but the late 1990s seems about right.) The school is approaching its 50th anniversary, its funders are watching it closely, and Headmaster Marrow (Robert D. Hardaway), who has been on the job for just two years, is determined to hold on to his position, which means keeping his students on the straight and narrow path.

The school’s choir is a prestigious entity, and Pharus Jonathan Young (Christopher W. Jones) is determined to lead it. Clearly gifted, self-confident and flamboyant (his fellow students use far more offensive language to denote the fact that he is gay), he is first seen performing a solo at the graduation ceremony for the year-older senior class, where he is momentarily distracted by the slurs and laughter of his fellow choir boys, most notably Bobby Marrow (Patrick Agada), who just happens to be the headmaster’s nephew, and Bobby’s best friend, Junior Davis (Julian Terrell Otis).

Pharus becomes the choir master, but the tension in the group — which also includes the ever-anxious, ministry-bound scholarship student David Heard (Darren Patin) and Pharus’ handsome, athletic, open-minded roommate, Anthony Justin “AJ” James (Tamarus Harvell) — is constant. And since everyone is supposed to operate on the honor code — and snitching is considered unacceptable (even if pressured by the headmaster) — things often come to a boil, and not always in the most expected ways.

McCraney’s canny introduction of a single white character adds great zest to the play. He is Mr. Pendelton (Don Tieri), a nebbishy, balding man who taught at the school and is now retired, but has been brought back to shake things up a bit and conduct a special class designed to hone the students’ debating and creative thinking skills. Initially a target of derision, he gains respect when the headmaster recites his civil rights movement credentials. And his assignments, which have the students debating the meaning of spirituals in African-American life, and also cleverly plays with the music their parents grew up with, becomes a highlight of the production.

Throughout, in a show of grand ensemble playing across the board, the solo voices and group harmonies are superbly rendered, with music direction by Frederick Harris and winningly executed moves stylishly choreographed by Breon Arzell. Ray Toler’s set (with lighting by Diane D. Fairchild and excellent sound design by Sebby Woldt) has a few fine surprises, too, in this tragicomic play about the painful process of morphing from “boy” to “man.”

Tamarus Harvell (left) and Christopher W. Jones in the Raven Theatre production of “Choir Boy.” (Photo: Dean La Prairie)