‘Choir Boy’ Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney on Race, Sexuality and Making His Broadway Debut

Jeremy Pope Choir Boy
Matthew Murphy

Choir Boy,” Tarell Alvin McCraney’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” ends its Broadway run next week. The drama has earned rave reviews for its portrait of a gay teen’s struggles to be accepted by the other boys at his prep school. Pharus, the play’s central character, is a gifted singer, but his role as head of the school choir is threatened when he clashes with the headmaster’s bullying nephew. The play, McCraney’s first on Broadway, is a penetrating look at race, masculinity, and sexuality that should be remembered at Tony Awards time.

McCraney spoke with Variety about how “Moonlight,” which he co-wrote with director Barry Jenkins, changed his life, and also discussed the obstacles that gay and transgender teens face.

How much of this play is drawn from your own experiences?

So many moments. When I was that age, I was growing up black and queer in the South, and looking to be part of a community. I always felt like I had to negotiate who I was in order to do that. I still remember going to high school and how terrifying it was to try to be open and myself and excel in all the ways that I wanted to excel.

Pharus seems pretty confident about who he is. He’s not hiding his sexuality, despite the prejudice he faces.

That’s true. I wanted to look at what it means when people cannot hide their true selves. He cannot hide who he is.

In New York City, we sort of think of homophobia as something that’s dying out. That prejudices exist, but that the world is spinning forward. What do you think?

I don’t know. The rates of black and latino LGBT homelessness is going up. It’s not decreasing. You still have cyber bullying and other cruel things which LGBT students are subjected to. With Pharus, he’s in a single-parent household. He’s not a legacy student. He doesn’t have any type of privilege you can use as a shield. I’m not sure we should be patting ourselves on the back when it’s freezing cold and there are LGBT students out there on the streets without a home.

In “Choir Boy,” there’s a moment where a white teacher lashes out at one of his black pupils for using the “N word.” He essentially says that the slur is so hateful that no one, not even black people, should ever use it. Do you share that view?

No, I have a different view. I don’t think a white man should tell a black child how to use that word. We as black people don’t need the accreditation of white people to make us more worthy. In education, it’s often the case where white people are telling us you’re smart so therefore you are deemed smart. I want to challenge that.

How did the success of “Moonlight” change your life?

People took more notice of me. My calls started getting answered. Artistically it forever changed me.

The music in “Choir Boy” is glorious. What interested you in spirituals?

I’m fortunate enough to know there’s some sort of healing power in live performance. You can see the bittersweetness in the spirituals and in the refrains of our music and dance. It was such a vital way to be expressive and connect, but there’s also the legacy of 500 years of slavery and struggle and oppression connected to them. And these were the same songs that John Lewis and MLK sang on that bridge in Selma.

What has it been like to be on Broadway?

It’s been exciting. Five or six of the cast are debuting on Broadway for the first time. I’m not nearly as young as they are, but it’s just as galvanizing for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.