“I don’t want to hide from people.”
That’s what Reggie Lee Doles tells me during our interview at the newish millennial hipster hang-out, Granby Social Club, for a media event to introduce Choir Boy, a co-production of the recently acclaimed NSU Theatre Company and newly formed The Limbic System, Inc., just a few weeks back.
“I will come into an interview with flowy pants, a dangling earring, a face full of makeup…but that’s the person that I am,” he says, referring to his current visual aesthetic. Of course I love it…but it wouldn’t matter at all to him, if I didn’t. Reggie Lee is clearly very comfortable in his own skin, a fact that differs from the place that Pharus is largely in, during the time of the play.
“I feel as if I am Pharus’ activist, because Pharus in the play, and Reggie in real life, are completely opposite.”
Yet interestingly enough, the character of Pharus is strongly supported at Drew, by his very masculine and heterosexual best friend, Anthony “AJ” James, which seems to parallel the real life dynamic that is clearly visible in front of me, between actor Derrick Moore, an ex-jock and St. Louis native, and Reggie Lee, with his “beat face” and pretty attire. “It’s a real Pharus and A.J. situation,” Reggie Lee quickly says. Indeed. Derrick speaks glowingly of both Reggie and Pharus.
“The strength of Pharus, by far…that’s an awesome dude,” Derrick says, regarding the aspect of the play he enjoys the most. “I admire that strength so much.”
And then there’s actor Isaiah Roper, who portrays Bobby Marrow, the headmaster’s nephew, and the clear antagonist to Pharus. “He’s hurt, so his motto is to hurt people,” says Isaiah about his character.
It is at the decades old Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, where Pharus’ understated flamboyance, as well as his sometimes perceived effeminate mannerisms, creates tension within the conservative structure of that boarding school’s hallowed halls. Pharus is both an excellent singer and strong leader, so he’s naturally elevated to leader of the school’s gospel choir, a vocal group carved in the same tradition of say, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, where Negro spirituals are afforded their rightful place as high art repertoire. Pharus is passionate about that tradition, and indeed, besides Choir Boy’s exploration of masculinity, homophobia and self-acceptance, the relevance of the Negro spiritual is also given adequate attention within the story.
Choir Boy is co-directed by Anthony Stockard, who is the Director of Theatre at Norfolk State University, and Patrick Mullins, the Interim Artistic Director at Virginia Stage Company. The Tarell Alvin McCraney play is their first collaboration together, as co-directors. Anthony has acted in a couple of Mullins’ productions at VSC. This is also the first official production of Mullins, under the umbrella of his new Limbic System.
“I feel like there are a lot of conversations, and a lot of art pieces, that we should be talking about in our communities, that we’re not…because there’s just nobody there to lead that conversation,” Patrick says. “So while it’s separate from VSC, it’s not in any way in competition with VSC, it’s just an outlet for part of my voice that I don’t get to express there.”
Anthony and Patrick liked that Choir Boy spoke to both the African-American and LGBTQ communities, in an organic way. The tragedy in Orlando was freshly on most of our minds that day at the Granby Social Club. Both directors mention how the timing of the production, which was beginning its initial run that week in Virginia Beach, provides the work with an even heavier context. Yet the work is not steeped in sadness, as much as it is lifted towards optimism, in part due to the gospel music, which Anthony mentions adoringly.
“It’s interwoven in the play. The spirituals themselves in the African-American community have a long history of being the thing that held the group together, kept people focused… And in the middle of what was an ugly horrible environment, preserved hope for people,” explains Anthony.
“Part of the play’s draw is that some of them are still sung traditionally, but some of them have these wonderful, innovative, jazzy syncopated arrangements…”
When I spoke with Choir Boy playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney, who teaches at the University of Miami, earlier this week, I was surprised to learn that he grew up in the Church. McCraney, by the way, is regarded by some as the playwright with the best chance of filling the void left by August Wilson in his passing. Tarell, a Miami native, is still only in his thirties, but his plays, which have been produced in both London and in NYC, are highly acclaimed and award-winning. Back in 2009, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote of his “Brother/Sister Plays””
directed by Tina Landau and Robert O’Hara and acted by a rousingly good ensemble, removes any worries that this newly crowned emperor might be naked. Watching them, you experience the excited wonder that comes from witnessing something rare in the theater: a new, authentically original vision.
During our phone conversation, we talk about the Q in the LGBTQ designation, as well as sexual fluidity, and other related topics, but primarily, we stick to Choir Boy.
“At some point I wanted to create a piece about young men…being prepared for the rest of the world, young men of color particularly, and from the standpoint of what we in the black community hold sacred, which is tradition, and education and legacy,” he says. “How are we equipping our young people, who are trying to be as individual as possible, to also follow a legacy that seems to be very stringent and conservative?” It’s a fascinating question, and one of the many that Choir Boy raises within its ninety plus minutes of intermission-less gripping theater.
Tonight is the last evening performance for its Norfolk run, which concludes with a Sunday matinee tomorrow. Considering the bombardment of horror that we have experienced over the past several days here in this country—from the tragic murders of young black men at the hands of white police officers—to the murder of police officers themselves in a separate tragedy, it may seem hard to focus on anything else. Trust me… this production of Choir Boy is a worthy night out. Great art always helps us make sense of—if not the tragedy itself—our ability to overcome it, no matter how insurmountable it may seem. And for just $25 per ticket, it ain’t Hamilton.
Choir Boy plays tonight at the Governor’s School for the Arts Dalis Black Box Theatre at 254 Granby Street in Norfolk, @ 8:00 PM, and tomorrow @ 2 PM. Tickets are $25.