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FunTimes Magazine

Choir Boy and Its Message to Black Youth

Mar 07, 2022 01:00PM ● By Mac Johnson

Tristan André, Justen Ross and Jeremy Cousar Image Source:

With a story of finding your voice, using your voice, and lifting your voice the Philadelphia Theatre Company delivers an exhilarating and thought-provoking coming-of-age tale in Choir Boy.

Choir Boy is a product of the brilliant mind of Tarell Alvin McCraney, one of the playwrights behind the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. With three bold strokes, McCraney marries the ideas of racial identity, sexuality, and religion. 

Most choirs have one singer that commands the spotlight, and the ensemble at the center of this show is no different. Pharus Jonathan Young, our story’s protagonist, is a self-proclaimed professional who strides across the stage like someone aware of their own star power. However, the smooth velvety voice you hear from Pharus’ character is that of Justen Ross. Ross is a Black, queer,  multi-hyphenate artist with star power in his own right.

“As a 15-year-old queer black boy who was still in the closet, I didn't know where my pleasure began and where my service ended,” said Ross. “Pharus resonated with me.”

Ross speaks of Pharus’ character as one he was born to play. Ross says that when he read Choir Boy, that was the first time he recognized his own voice. He credits his connection to the character to the man who wrote it.

“This is really a miracle of a play,” said Ross. “It's a bit of alchemy in the way that McCraney made this all come together to show that these spaces do exist.”

One space that Ross highlights is the special relationship shared by his character, Pharus, and AJ, played by Jamaal Fields-Green. AJ represents a traditional idea of masculinity. He’s an athlete, strong and confident, while Pharus presents a more feminine image of manhood. The two characters are tied together simply by showing unwavering support when it is needed the most.

“This play is really about boys becoming men,” said Ross. “In a world that takes Black men’s softness from them too soon, the sweet honey for these boys is singing.”

Ross even compares the relationship of the choir boys to the bond shared by members of Black Greek letter organizations like Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. Ross believes that part of what connects each cast member and also glues together the arc of each character is their ability to persevere.

“We’ve endured the white supremacist gaze that falls through the Black community,” said Ross. “We’re all enduring the gaze and the pressure of the church.”

“They might not understand each other’s struggles, but they do understand that they are all struggling together,” he continued. “We all need this. We need a second to disappear and fall into the blackness of melody, because that’s all we have right now.”

Throughout the play the viewer witnesses a hurricane of internal conflict churching within its main characters. Who am I? What do I believe? What do I feel and am I allowed to feel it? Who can I love? Who loves me? The crescendo of these questions creates the same voices that make up the incredible boys choir at Charles R. Drew Prep School, but through the tribulations of the play, for Ross, light shines through.

“The show embodies the hope that I’ve always had,” said Ross. “Even though I lived not knowing how my life is going to go, not knowing who I’m going to be in love with,  if my parents are going to love me for who I am, not knowing if I will be enough, but I have hope that there is a silver lining.”

Not only is Choir Boy another shining example of the diverse offering of art in Philadelphia, but this compelling show of Black youth transforming from adolescence to adulthood is sure to leave a lasting impact on you.

 Mac Johnson is a Emmy nominated documentarian, award winning television producer and writer whose sole purpose is to provide a platform for underserved communities. He is a proud HBCU graduate, having studied communications at Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University. Mac is also an active member of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and looks for community outreach and volunteering opportunities in his spare time. He is a die hard Eagles fan, vegan food connoisseur and a lover of all things hip-hop, gospel and jazz.

You can connect with him on social media:
Twitter: @mac___78
Instagram: @mac___78
email: [email protected]

Read more from Mac Johnson:
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