At first, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s study of five, black prep-school students (Jeremy Pope, Nicholas L. Ashe, Donovan Mitchell, Grantham Coleman and Caleb Eberhardt), along with their stern headmaster (Michael A.Shepperd) and a visiting white professor (Leonard Kelly-Young) from the civil rights era, might seem schematic. The “group drama” about opportunity and its lack in a callous world is carved from plays ranging from Trevor Griffiths' Comedians to Herbert Ross’ Steel Magnolias.
Eventually, however, McCraney’s poetical-musical style, along with Trip Cullman’s perfect staging, transforms a stock scenario into a kind of oratorio: The five students, as part of the school choir, punctuate the action with sublime a capella renditions of gospel and spirituals. This production is every bit as visceral as McCraney’s other plays (In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size) presented locally by the Fountain Theatre, also with music and choreography.
The story’s core comes from Pharus (Pope) a conspicuously swishy, erudite and precocious choir leader who is harassed by homophobic Bobby (Mitchell), who happens to be the headmaster’s nephew. Eventually, Pharus suffers an even more unfortunate incident, and the play’s mystery turns on who's responsible, and why. All of this plays out on David Zinn’s red-block set in which the headmaster’s office rolls away into Pharus’ dorm room, while the shower areas reside on the periphery.
Part of Pharus' appeal is his very un-PC determination to define the tradition of gospel and spirituals as something more universally uplifting and less literal than code for how slaves can access opportunities for freedom. The production’s beauty also lies in its ever-so-tender depiction of Anthony’s (Coleman) wisdom and kindness for his persecuted and often needy roommate Pharus.
All of the students' lack of affirmation from society in general and from parents in particular forms a harrowing backdrop to McCraney’s depiction of overcompensating behaviors and the underpinnings of rage and need that permeate our entire society.
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Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., Westwood; through Oct. 26. (310) 208-4549, www.geffenplayhouse.com.
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