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The Rep's 'Choir Boy' casts light on a time of darkness

| Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
(From left) Jeff Howell, Tru Verret-Fleming and Jason Shavers in The Rep's production of 'Choir Boy.'
Jeff Swensen for Point Park University
(From left) Jeff Howell, Tru Verret-Fleming and Jason Shavers in The Rep's production of 'Choir Boy.'
PITTSBURGH-September 10: Actors rehearse for The Choir Boy. (Jeff Swensen for Point Park University)
Jeff Swensen for Point Park University
PITTSBURGH-September 10: Actors rehearse for The Choir Boy. (Jeff Swensen for Point Park University)

For director Tome' Cousin, the play “Choir Boy,” written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, offers a trip back in time and a new approach to his craft.

The drama interlaced with a capella gospel music begins with a troubling incident that occurs as Pharus sings the school anthem at the end-of-year ceremony at Charles R. Drew Prep, a boarding school for African-American boys.

The story then follows the aftermath of that incident as the bright, ambitious Pharus and his classmates wrestle with sexuality, ambition and loyalty to the school's code of honor through their senior year. The play will be presented by The Rep through Oct. 11 at Pittsburgh Playhouse, Oakland.

“It does not focus on one (boy). We look at all six and decide which one we want to focus on,” Cousin says.

Growing up in Baltimore in the early 1970s, Cousin spent his middle-school years at a similar school that prepped young African-American males to transition to schools of higher learning.

“It prepared me for what I was headed into,” Cousin says.

Though not a boarding school, it was a Catholic school, run by Jesuits. Like the students in McCraney's play, Cousin says, “We sang all the time there. Music was the one thing that calmed us down and got us to focus.”

While there, Cousin says, a similar — but more violent — incident occurred.

“All of us took the code of silence. It was life-changing for the person it happened to,” he says. “I could have written this play myself.”

For the past 40 years, Cousin never talked about what happened, even with his closest friends.

“It was a dark corner of life that I went past all the time,” he says.

He has located two of the boys who were affected by the incident and invited them to come see the production.

“I'm using this piece to say I am so sorry,” he says.

Because his reactions to the drama are so personal, Cousin has taken a completely new approach to his direction.

“Usually, (when rehearsal begins) I know the material so well I can prepare and play. I'm very structured,” he says.

“This time, I came in with nothing and said let's create this as we go along. I wanted to draw on other (people's) memories.”

The production uses musical arrangements Darius Smith created for a production at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., and what Cousin calls “surprisingly a lot of choreography” that Cousin created for the production.

But his hope is that theatergoers will concentrate on the play's themes.

“I want the audience to focus on (issues of) bullying, homophobia and race,” he says.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

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