As GableStage prepares for the opening of Choir Boy, its fourth Tarell Alvin McCraney production in as many seasons, artistic director Joseph Adler can't stop himself from talking about the playwright and Miami native.
"I've known him since he was in high school at New World, and I've watched his career. You hear the term 'meteoric rise' very often, but it's never been more apt," Adler says. "He's received great reviews and awards, many of them carrying cash, [but] he hasn't changed at all. He still doesn't drive a car. He's one of the only people I know who can get around Miami on a bicycle or bus. And he's never late for an appointment!"
Don't be surprised, though, if McCraney doesn't pedal on the streets of Miami as often as he used to. As Adler notes, the 34-year-old wunderkind is no longer a regional talent. He's been an international playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and a member of Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and he has won accolades such as a New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is so in demand that when Adler informed him that GableStage would be producing his latest work, the coming-of-age drama Choir Boy this January, McCraney couldn't commit to returning home to direct it. "He would have been my first choice," Adler says.
Instead, Adler will take the directorial reins, his first time translating a McCraney text. The play is set in a fictional African-American prep school, a relic of segregated education where boys become men through the application of discipline and rigor. Surrounded by athletes like Anthony "AJ" James and the homophobic headmaster's nephew, Bobby Marrow, the play's effeminate protagonist, Pharus, is an outcast, except when he's leading his school's choir through exhilarating spirituals. But when a classmate's anti-gay slur disrupts a performance, it sets in motion a series of brisk, potent exchanges -- verbal, physical, emotional, musical -- that will shape the future of the students and the school.
Though the story is not inspired by life experiences, McCraney himself dealt with bigotry while growing up as a gay youth in Miami. When he was a child, his then-best friend said to him: "I never want to see you again, faggot," and McCraney never saw him again. The Brothers Size, his 2011 GableStage breakthrough, deals with repressed homosexuality in an African-American culture. He even infused some of this same-sex desire into his Antony and Cleopatra production last year.
Choir Boy examines issues of sexuality and race with a therapeutic wisdom beyond McCraney's 34 years. And Adler believes it's his most accessible work yet for mainstream audiences of any age.
"I thought this was a great play for high-school students," says Adler, who will present the production at no cost to underprivileged students at the Joseph Caleb Auditorium and the Lyric Theater following its GableStage run. "We love bringing Shakespeare to them, and we'll continue to do that, but this play was too good not to, from the standpoint of being a teaching moment, dealing with bullying, dealing with sexual identity. This gives us a great opportunity to discuss that."
Like most of McCraney's plays, Choir Boy includes a live choral component, under the musical direction of Christina Alexander. The characters engage in sometimes structured, sometimes spontaneous renditions of Negro spirituals such as "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Like a Greek chorus, they erupt at significant moments in the story, reflecting the characters' inner lives.
"Negro spirituals hold a significant place in the cultural cache of America," McCraney says. "Whether we admit it or not, they are the spine, or certainly a vertebra, of modern American music. I'm interested in how the tradition of that music is honored and who is entrusted with carrying this arc."
The challenge -- and the thrill -- for Adler is to direct the play, with its copious dialogue scenes and exhilarating musical interludes, without the assistance of stage direction. McCraney is a minimalist writer, so it's up to Adler and his cast to create both the physical actions and placements of the characters as well as the flow of the piece, where a single set must encompass a multitude of locations. James Randolph, who plays the prep school's headmaster and who was directed by McCraney in 2012's Hamlet, says there are marked differences between McCraney's and Adler's directing styles.
"Probably Joe has a stronger idea about where he ultimately wants to go, and he'll keep you on that course and keep it moving until he gets you where he thinks you and the other actors in the scene should be," Randolph says. "Tarell enjoys the art of exploration. He'll let you just play, and he'll reel you back in when he thinks you're going off the reservation.
"Of course, Tarell was working with a cast of 13 to 15 people [on Hamlet]. It was a classical play, an adaptation; there were sword fights. This is a series of scenes that builds slowly, and the cast is smaller, and the scenes are in some ways more intimate, kind of like apples and kiwis."
For Randolph, this production completes a cycle that began with teaching theater to McCraney at New World, continued as he acted in a McCraney-directed classic, and now includes performing in one of his original plays.
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"His talent has gotten as strong as his humanity, both of which are really quite high," Randolph says. "He always had a very distinct spark, and it was recognized [at school]. I would say I've gone from being a teacher of his to one of his biggest fans."
Choir Boy runs January 24 through though February 22 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119, gablestage.org. Tickets cost $40 to $50.