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Caleb Eberhardt makes a tuneful Broadway debut in Choir Boy
Six years after its acclaimed Off-Broadway run at Manhattan Theatre Club, Tarrell Alvin McCraney's music-infused Choir Boy brings its light to Broadway. Set at an all-African-American prep school for boys, the play examines the spectrum of black masculinity as a fabulous gay student and choir star, Pharus (Jeremy Pope), fights to carve out space for himself in hostile surroundings.
In his Broadway debut, Caleb Eberhardt plays Pharus' anxious classmate David, and it's almost impossible to talk about his exquisitely understated performance without giving too much away. Even though the show is more character than plot driven, there are revelations in the relationships that should surprise. Choir Boy may revolve around Pharus but his classmates, especially David, get chances to shine, particularly during glorious musical sequences when the performers sing spirituals, pop tunes and hymns in harmony.
Raised in a loving and musical family (both of his parents were preachers), Eberhardt was well prepared to give full voice to the production's musical demands for his character, which include an emotionally devastating solo in "Motherless Child" and another number that is a spoiler to reveal. A graduate of the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at SUNY Purchase, he also writes and records R&B / hip-hop songs under the moniker Rosehardt, so Choir Boy combines his lifelong passions. "I grew up in the Baptist church so I know this music very well," he says. "The arrangements are different, but 'Motherless Child' is something I was born listening to. That's why I think this is so beautiful. It's like, everything just sort of came together for my Broadway debut."
Although Kyle Beltran originated the role of David in the play's 2013 world premiere, Eberhardt's been playing the part ever since, including runs at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre and L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse. While the actor acknowledges that there have been dialogue changes and dramaturgical shifts during the years he's been with the show, he's glad his character has retained his air of mystery, and not just for the audience. "I think a good actor leaves open the possibility that there may be things that he does not know about his character," Eberhardt says. "I know David but I'm still curious about him -- especially since I've gotten older."
Eberhardt's intimacy with the character came in handy when McCraney recently decided to add context to a climactic scene between David and Pharus. In earlier iterations of the script, David had an offstage epiphany that fueled his onstage action. But after watching the first preview on Broadway, the playwright rearranged events and created a transition that clarifies David's motives. "It's something I'm still working on," Eberhardt admits. "I asked Tarrell how these two scenes came together and he was straight up like, 'Dude, I don't know.' And I was like, 'Okay. I'm going to figure it out.' You've got to see David's realization happening so that if you missed something earlier, it all clicks."
As in his previous plays (The Brother/Sister Plays, Head of Passes, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which served as the basis for the Oscar-winning movie Moonlight), McCraney has imbued Choir Boy's characters with a palpable dread of vulnerability. In this dog-eat-dog environment steeped in misguided tradition -- students never snitch and queerness is reviled -- the slightest moment of sweetness can be weaponized. That fear of seeming weak damages all the students, whether they realize it or not.
"Last night, I had to take a moment when I came on stage to think about how sad it is that anyone has to convince himself that what he feels is all right," Eberhardt says. "People are always going through something, so do your best to check on the ones you care about."
To read about a student's experience at Choir Boy, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
A dancer and playwright, Juan Michael Porter II has contributed articles to Ballet Review, The Dance Enthusiast, Time Out New York, Broadway World and HuffPost. Follow him at @juanmichaelii. Follow TDF at @ TDFNYC.
Top image: Jeremy Pope and Caleb Eberhardt in Choir Boy. Photos by Matthew Murphy.