For a New York Times Magazine profile story, Carvell Wallace interviews the playwright Tarell Alvin McCarney, visiting a rehearsal of “Choir Boy,” a “queer coming of age tale” about members of a gospel choir at a prestigious all-Black boarding school:
In the scene I watched the cast work on, the character of David, played by Caleb Eberhardt, decides to open his heart to another character, which he does by starting off a song, “Motherless Child.” The lyrics — “sometimes I feel like a motherless child/a long way from home” — date back to slavery, and like the words of most spirituals, they have a clear and heavy range of meanings. You can interpret them as personal, spiritual and political, all at once.
All those meanings are at play in the scene. The boys of Drew are, literally, a long way from home. They share showers, sleep in dorm rooms and can call home only once a week. They are left to build themselves out of whatever is in the air: tough but fair headmasters, a dignified but burdensome “black excellence” tradition, a sky full of forceful and conflicting expectations of black masculinity. It is too much and boils over.
Tensions are high among the boys in the locker room, who are still buzzing over a recent near-fight. David, on the way to the shower, stops to sing the first stanza of the song alone, then to a classmate. Then the entire group joins in, sending their voices echoing off unforgiving tile. It is meant to be heart-rending.
The problem, this morning, was that it wasn’t working. The director, Trip Cullman — he most recently directed Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” last year — was gamely trying different ways of transitioning into this fraught moment. What if Eberhardt did it from upstage? What if he went halfway off and came back? What if he started quietly and then built?
The playwright was present, wearing a cream-colored cardigan, crisp jeans and gleaming, off-white, all-leather Chuck Taylors, seated at a folding table crowded with script binders and room-temperature coffees. So far, I had heard him say little. But now he asked for the floor. The actors took seats. I noticed I was nervous for him. When the actors are struggling and the director can’t seem to find a solution, you’re forced to ask: Could the problem be the script?
But when McCraney talked, he didn’t talk about the play or the dialogue. Instead, he talked about grief. Casually, as though it were something that just came to his mind. He explained what it felt like to lose his mother at 22. He did not talk about how she died, and he hinted only a little at the complexity of their relationship; this address was not autobiographical. It was to do with emotions. McCraney described how grief lives in a person’s body, how it settles there. He explained its half-life, the unreliable nature of its decay. He talked about the phenomenon, when grieving a loved one, in which you begin to have memories of times after their death that you think they must have been present for. Remember when I won an Academy Award for my movie, and you were so proud? And then he talked about how things like that make you grieve their absence all over again, and how that grief catches you unawares, taking over your body when you least expect it. It sits in a small reservoir beneath your heart. It whispers to you at odd hours and yells at you in quiet ones.
I teared up just a little bit hearing it. My own mother died in my arms almost exactly 10 years earlier. My relationship with her was also complicated. My grief also weaves in and out of being with little explanation or predictability. McCraney was calling something into the room, I might even say invoking it. All that was happening was that he was explaining something about grief — something that he, at age 38, knew, and that the cast, talented black Broadway-level actors/dancers/singers ranging in age from maybe 20 to 25, may not yet have known but were capable of understanding.
McCarney’s deft direction and trust in the cast and his own vulnerability reshuffles the room; the men nail the scene. “Choir Boy” is McCarney’s first work produced on a Broadway stage. He’s most well-known for adapting the Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonlight, another tender coming of story, from the play, “In the Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue,” which he wrote when he was 23.