[A note: the following article features spoilers for the Broadway show Choir Boy. Quotes were taken directly from Theatre Communication Group’s 2015 ebook version of the script. The script has some minor differences from the current, updated, Broadway production, directed by Trip Cullman.]
“You know, it’s just high school. It gets better. I think he’ll be better off once he gets out. Life will improve for him,” someone said outside of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre after a Broadway production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy that I attended recently. The show, which tells the story of Pharus Jonathan Young and his fellow students at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, ends on a heartbreaking image: our protagonist weeping as he graduates, a light shining down on him and him alone, with the one thing he wanted most of all stripped from him.
Before Pharus steps onto that stage, before the show closes on his tears, his abuser sings in the place he’s supposed to be. His abuser, who opens the show by calling him “this faggot ass nigga”, is Bobby, nephew of the school’s headmaster and a young man who hates that he has to exist in the presence of a queer man in any capacity. Another of his classmates, David, has been expelled after beating Pharus in the communal showers in order to hide the fact that they were engaging in a DL romantic affair.
This isn’t an especially optimistic closing scene folks. For a show stacked with as much laughter at delightfully familiar situations of being queer and in high school, Choir Boy is constantly reminding us of just how much of a struggle existing is. For each moment of intimacy between a queer man and a straight man, take Pharus and his roommate AJ sharing a bed for comfort or AJ polishing up Pharus’ hair with a simple trim, there’s a mountain of pain that precedes it or follows.
Pharus, in the realm of the play, has to be taken down by everyone around him. He’s a proud young man, rightfully so considering his talent, but his pride is the feature that everyone around him targets most. Any compliment to his talent is always paired with a side-eye towards his overt femininity, to the queerness that he still isn’t comfortable acknowledging openly. People talk at him and down to him about his sexuality, about the way he presents as openly queer even though he’s a black man, meant to be a pillar of his community, i.e. meant to be masculine to be taken seriously.
Therein comes the struggle to be taken seriously. Pride and femininity combined are a threat to the status quo, and more precisely a threat to Bobby, the peak of entitlement within the pool of characters that populate Choir Boy. He’s a character that could have easily fallen into the trappings of a typical bully, but McCraney offers some insight into Bobby’s anger issues without ever excusing his behavior. Bobby is unable to approach any situation in a manner that benefits those around him, leaning hard into toxic behavior that hurts those around him more than himself. The consequences are few and far between for him, failing upward rather than getting any comeuppance by the end of the play. But such is life for a number of straight men, especially those like Bobby who also benefit from nepotism or having those in power protecting them in some capacity.
Life for queer men who embrace the feminine is decidedly different (and, even within the gay community itself, there’s a constant focus on how “straight-acting or passing” one can be). While it is never more painfully clear than at the end of the play that Pharus is destined to get the short end of the stick more often than his classmates, McCraney constantly reminds the audience that his life experience is not equal to that of his peers. It’s not simply in the condescension he faces, the homophobic sneers and jokes, the constant policing of his gaze and his speech. It’s in the way that Pharus faces these forces and more from outside of the walls of Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. It’s in the first words we hear between Pharus and his mother, “I know, I know Mama . . . I’m not going to embarrass anybody.”
We’re meant to believe it’s simply a reference to how Pharus messed up his lyrics, due to Bobby antagonizing him with slurs on stage, at the start of the play. But it’s more than that. He ends this call telling her,
“You — you coming, right? I know you got a lot but I just asked.
Right you don’t have to be here to know I graduated.
Hope you proud. You will be…
You will be.”
There’s strain there. There’s pain. There’s the knowledge that even in his home life, Pharus isn’t able to fully be himself. Himself, as he loves and knows it, is something that can be prone to being considered embarrassing, considered less than what a son should be. This is confirmed later in the play, in Pharus and AJ’s bedroom during one of the few moments of male intimacy and reprieve that doesn’t end poorly, when he notes that his mother did in fact come to the school before graduation. “Couldn’t even look at me,” he explains. “My…face. Just said, ‘You need a haircut. Ain’t no barbers round here?’ She know I don’t set foot in nobody’s barbershop.”
The tail end of this confirmatory quote leads into the essential piece of Choir Boy that showcases just how “it gets better” doesn’t actually function for it. He leads into the story with, “My mama would tell me to get my hair cut ’cause, ‘You looking too pretty.’” He and his friend Kevin, a masculine boy who blended in well and was “gon be something, a ballplayer or something,” would go to the barbershop, where Kevin was adored and Pharus was loathed. “I never felt right there,” Pharus notes earlier. “Always felt like the last place I should be, and they made sure I knew it.”
With the snap of a finger, as it so often happens, a friend’s prejudice and insecurity is exploited and Kevin attacks Pharus with his words. “Kevin looked at me like spit would’ve been too kind, like Hell was a place. He walked up on me say, ‘Don’t tell me nothing you faggot. Don’t you say nothing to me.’” He goes on:
Made the mistake of looking up after he said that, looked round for a place to run and all these men, grown men, looking at me, what was I eight or nine?Looking at me like, “That’s right.”
Like, “That’s what you get.”
Like they were all with him and not no one . . .
Couldn’t even walk in that barbershop
Told my mama I was cutting my own hair to help her save money.
Every place I went felt the same. Cept . . .
Until I got to Drew. Everybody didn’t like me but I had . . . I had space to let me be. That was what was good about being here.
Now everybody looking at me like, “That’s what you get.”
As the boys dress for commencement, they sing “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder”, and he solemnity in the lyrics “I got a rainbow tied around my shoulder […] Ev’rywhere I, Where I look this morning, look like rain, Lord” takes new meaning when sung by a character like Pharus. He is, just as the men who used to sing this, a prisoner in a world that doesn’t want people like him. He prepares to exist off-stage, his queerness hanging over him as the thing that brought his downfall. There’s a clear depiction of the way this breeds a sense of self-loathing, not simply in a character like David who externalizes that, but in Pharus, who weeps on stage.
Choir Boy is all too painfully aware of how feminine men are conditioned to hate themselves, conditioned to change or tone down who they are for fear of the repercussions that come with it. Stepping out into the real world after the actors take their bows isn’t a soothing experience because just outside of the theatre doors exists a world just like the one depicted in the show. High school ends, but the men who hated us there, who exhausted us as we tried to maintain a smile and a self-celebratory personality, are coming out into the world with us. The barbershops of our childhoods are the high schools of our teens are the work places of our future and beyond. Sure, there are reprieves from hatred, but hatred never stops existing. “It gets better” only goes so far.