Around midway through Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy,” a group of boys at a boarding school for “strong, ethical black men” belt out the classic spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” in a locker room. And while that was one of the few gospel-style songs I knew in this potent, transporting piece, I felt I was truly hearing it for the very first time.
The rendition was so poignant I wondered if McCraney, who has made a name for himself creating works like “The Brother/ Sister Plays” and “Wig Out!” that drew from his past as a shy, God-fearing boy growing up in crack-infested Miami housing projects in the 1980s, was motherless himself. A quick bio check confirmed that after a nasty battle with drug addiction, his mother died of AIDS-related illness at age 40.
This is just one of many authentic, exhilarating moments in “Choir Boy,” which is chock-full of glorious singing, although it would be wrong to label it a musical. More precisely, it’s a drama featuring gospel music, hymns, civil rights anthems, and soulful ‘80s pop thrown in for good measure — all integrated skillfully into the plot.
When these boys sing, it’s because their hormone-fueled emotions run so high, ordinary dialogue fails them. The intense spirituality of the music, which ranges from plaintive to angry to joyous — soars straight to the heavens, carrying us along with it. Jason Michael Webb is the music director and vocal arranger.
Each student has plenty to sing about. Pharus Young (Jeremy Pope), presumably based on the playwright, is a gifted vocalist — and unapologetically gay. He fends off homophobia with sass and finds salvation as head of the gospel choir, which, while not as impressive as being captain of the baseball team, carries no small amount of prestige in the religion-based Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. The effeminate, self-righteous Pharus refuses to snitch after being harassed for his sexual orientation. At Drew, breaking the honor code by ratting on a brother is even worse than being a queer choirboy.
His jock roommate, AJ (Grantham Coleman), is incredibly accepting yet must deal with the stigma of association with the “Sweet Boy.” Pharus’ nemesis is a bully named Bobby Marrow (Wallace Smith), who fights to escape the shadow of his uncle, the school headmaster. David (Kyle Beltran) has ambitions of becoming a minister but is bedeviled by a host of inner demons. Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe), Bobby’s dutiful sidekick, is having trouble mastering basic reading and spelling skills and relies on his brothers to help him.
The boys are kept in check by the watchful Headmaster Morrow (Chuck Cooper) and Mr. Pendleton (played by the esteemed veteran actor-director Austin Pendleton), a rumpled professor with unorthodox teaching methods.
Director Trip Cullman extracts admirable performances from the committed ensemble. Pope shades the bossy, defiant Pharus with unexpected nuance, eliciting scorn one moment and sympathy the next. As the no-nonsense headmaster preoccupied with the school’s reputation and finances, Cooper adds a welcome dose of compassion, serving as a much-needed father figure for many of the boys. In the underwritten role of Junior, the radiant Ashe is a knockout, burning with a quiet intensity that speaks volumes.
The play crackles with McCraney’s gritty, unsentimental dialogue spiked with ugly epithets and penis jokes that make it feel raw and fresh, if not unnerving.
Set in the contemporary South, “Choir Boy” is a spare, keenly sensitive meditation on African-American tradition, sexuality, brotherhood, and finding a place in the world. Aside from some awkward transitions and a patchy narrative, my biggest quibble is that scenes are so quickly paced, there’s no room for applause following any of the soul-stirring, amazingly graceful musical numbers.
CHOIR BOY | Manhattan Theatre Club | Studio Stage II at the New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St. | Through Aug. 4: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $30 at nycitycenter.org