No one has ever accused stage scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney of aiming low, and he’s certainly not bucking his own trend with “Choir Boy.” Examining the role of religion in the repression of gay sexuality at an all-black prep school alongside the construction of black cultural identity is riskier subject matter than most. But such incendiary material could not be in safer hands than those of director Dominic Cooke whose Royal Court premiere is as intellectually and emotionally riveting as it is authentic.

Both the title and the arc of the plot — which covers a year in which the role and workings of the much-lauded school choir are put under the microscope — seem to suggest that the show might be a tuner. And, to a degree, it is. Expert musical direction by Charles Vassell has turned a strikingly young group of actors into a convincing, cohesive vocal quartet whose a capella harmonies are laced in and out of the action.

Their deft singing effortlessly represents the choir as the school’s long-established pride and joy which, in the school’s anniversary year, is crucial since it acts as a funding magnet. Problematically, however, the highly articulate and gifted choir leader Pharus (Dominic Smith) is seriously effeminate. Whether or not he is actually gay in initially unclear but facts don’t bother his fellow singers, who have already made their minds up, notably Bobby (Eric Kofi Abrefa) who verbally abuses him whenever he can get away with it.

Bobby feels unusually safe in his discriminatory attitude because he happens to be the nephew of the headmaster (Gary McDonald). The latter is presented as a man caught between duty to his pupils’ wider education, the importance (or tyranny) of tradition and the need to toe the line with parents.

For all the complexity of the headmaster’s position, his character doesn’t quite ring true. His inability to cope with the confrontational sexuality of one of his students is too conveniently naive and forces McDonald to overcompensate by being too angry too much of the time. But if his loss of temper in front of students feels overegged, it’s a small price to pay for the acute observation of the tensions surrounding adolescent inchoate feelings.

McCraney is hardly the first playwright to examine the dangers of adolescent sexual longing, but the reason he scores such a bullseye is his ability to place everything in a fascinatingly wide context.

Structurally, he embeds the personal tensions within the workings of the choir, which serves as a vivid aural metaphor for wider cohesiveness. But he also writes the difficult, personal steps towards sexual self-acceptance into a plot underscored by political ramifications. An elderly white teacher (David Burke) brought into the school instigates debate that leads to Pharus questioning the widely held belief about the imagery of spirituals. The traditional argument is that the songs are coded texts of escape. Pharus’s questioning of an orthodoxy for which, he argues, there is no proof, speaks to any number of beliefs of the black community, not least how young black men “should” be and the workings of homophobia. The resonances of that become increasingly powerful as the plot flows inexorably towards its threatened violent confrontation.

The usual charge leveled at plays where the central character is the outsider in search of a sense of self is that the dice are unfairly loaded. Not here. As played by an eerily calm, marvellous amused Dominic Smith in only his second stage role, Pharus isn’t a delicate flower, wholly sympathetic. He’s arrogant and manipulative, a mix both entertaining and intriguingly difficult.

His performance is matched by the rest of Cooke’s meticulously directed cast. All the relationships ring true on a traverse set, designed by Ultz and built up into the ceiling of the Court’s Theater Upstairs, that not only captures the corridors and eaves of an old-fashioned school but, by scattering the boys amid the seating, welds the audience to the atmospheric location.

Eager Royal Court audiences have already sold out the London run, which absolutely deserves a speedy transfer. Commissioned by Manhattan Theater Club, the play will receive its New York preem in June 2013. Cooke’s zinger of a production will be a tough act to follow.

Choir Boy

Royal Court Upstairs, London; 80 seats, £20 $32 top

  • Production: A Royal Court Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club presentation of a play in one act by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Dominic Cooke.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Ultz; lighting, Charles Balfour; sound, Carolyn Downing; musical direction, Colin Vassell; production stage managers, Nafeesah Butt and Olivia Kerslake. Opened Sept. 10 2012, reviewed Sept. 8. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.
  • Cast: Pharus - Dominic Smith Headmaster Morrow - Gary McDonald Bobby - Eric Kofi Abrefa AJ - Khali Best Mr. Pendleton - David Burke David - Aron Julius Junior - Kwayeda Kureya