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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When you hear a spiritual in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy, it never means just one thing.
In one sense, yes, it's perfectly natural for the characters to sing a song like "Motherless Child:" They're mostly members of the student choir at a fictional prep school for African-American teens, so it's logical that they'd sing their repertoire.
But every time a number begins, it also expands the world of the play, which is now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II space at New York City Center. As they sing, characters might move into evocative new positions, their body language and proximity to one another revealing something unspoken about their relationships. Or they might choose spirituals that are so resonant with their lives that the lyrics reflect their secrets.
"The music eliminates subtext," says director Trip Cullman. "Like any good playwright, Tarell has re-appropriated these spirituals."
Take "Motherless Child." It arrives after a confrontation between Pharus (Jeremy Pope)---an outspoken, flamboyant, and incredibly lonely senior---and Bobby (Wallace Smith), who hides his wounds behind a cruel exterior. Thanks to either death or neglect, both boys are motherless children, so when they sing, even though they're not in the same literal space on stage, they are symbolically speaking to each other.
And the songs do more than that. As Jason Michael Webb, Choir Boy's music director and vocal arranger, points out, they need to sound current, even when they're metaphorical. "The world [of the play] is filtered through their experience as young people," he says. "They didn't grow up in a time when the hot song was 'Wade in the Water.' The challenge for me was making these songs sound authentic in the mouths of these young people who wouldn't even necessarily have a knowledge of that tradition."
That's why Webb has added contemporary vocal flourishes to his arrangements: "They weren't riffing and running back when 'Motherless Child' first came into public knowledge. All that ornamentation that Pharus puts on the song puts a 21st-century R&B flavor on the traditional arrangements."
As a director, Cullman sees a host of other functions for the songs, too. He explains, "At the most mundane level, they're just transitions. I'll think, 'Oh gosh, they're in their pjs, and they have to get into their school uniforms. How do I do that while they're singing?' And maybe I can give them something specific to play. Maybe it can be about, 'Oh my gosh, I'm late for class. I have to keep going. I have to go to class. I have to get good grades. I have to do my mom proud and do well in this school.'"
In that way, the songs are also engines that push the action forward, helping us understand what's happening in the moment, even as they provide emotional context for the entire production.
All those functions are obvious in one of the final numbers. The school's headmaster, played by Chuck Cooper, has just learned some difficult lessons, and as he sings "I've Been in the Storm So Long," we know he's using the language of the spiritual to talk about his own emotional journey. Meanwhile, the boys are taking positions that suggest their attitude toward the headmaster and that also get them in place for the next scene.
Cullman appreciates how these things can happen at the same time. "That's why I found this play so rewarding directorially," he says. "I'm able to synthesize all these elements that seemingly have nothing to do with each other."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus