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'Moonlight' writer hopes audiences leave his new play 'full of questions'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Coming to terms with their identities as young men move through high school is one theme of the hit Broadway play "Choir Boy."

Jeffrey Brown reports how celebrated playwright Tarell McCraney is busy writing more work for film, television and the stage, as part of Canvas, our regular series on arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: The new play "Choir Boy" is set in a mostly black, all-male boarding school.

Actor: My mother would never.

Actor: Oh, I don't know about your mother, but your mama, boy, whew!

Actor: Get your lanky self down, just all these limbs.

Jeffrey Brown: Young boys yearning and learning to become men.

They and the play itself use music to express joy and sorrow, anger and pain.

Tarell McCraney: It's a play with music, but it's not a musical. I think folks don't even recognize that the young men singing on stage, they have very little help. There's no orchestra. It's just them singing with each other, making those harmonies.

And so that in itself is sort of astonishing. But the nakedness of it, the sort of bareness of that is what's always been thrilling about what Negro spirituals are.

Jeffrey Brown: The 38-year-old McCraney, author of eight previous plays and winner of a MacArthur genius grant, burst onto the national stage as the Oscar-winning co-writer of "Moonlight," a film based on his own life growing up gay in Liberty City, Miami, an outsider in his own community and the wider world.

In "Choir Boy," he gives us Pharus, an astonishingly talented, curious and seemingly confident 16-year-old who happens to be gay. Jeremy Pope plays Pharus in a sensational Broadway debut.

Jeremy Pope: Thank Drew for letting me live alongside these other strapping mean-behind boys who don't have no problem displaying all kinds of bad behavior and ill will towards me.

But if I remove one of them from my presence, so that I can think long enough without someone drawing attention to my swish or my wrist, I need to be put down?

Jeffrey Brown: Pharus is a scholarship student with little support from home, hoping for a chance at bigger things through this prestigious school. But this is a place where his sexuality is not acknowledged.

Tarell McCraney: What is vital to the story, and personal, is that Pharus is chosen to do his talent, but to only bring your talent and to not bring the rest of you.

And that -- I feel like that has been something that has happened to me my whole life. If it's not my blackness, if it's not my queerness, it's like, just bring the talented part of you. Come do the thing we ask you for, and leave the rest at home.

Jeffrey Brown: Pharus is a character we don't often see on stage, and certainly not on Broadway.

For McCraney, he's a modern embodiment of the long, but unspoken history of the black church and the music that sustains so many.

Tarell McCraney: Oftentimes, the folk who lead us in singing those songs in churches are young queer men. And it's something we don't talk about. It's something we don't mention in public. And, sometimes, we admonish those same queer bodies who are often very gifted at singing and preserving that legacy.

When I was commissioned to write a play, I wanted to write about what does it mean as a community, in the black community, to pass down this legacy, this very treasured legacy, to these bodies that we sometimes often don't even regard as full human beings?

Jeffrey Brown: In "Choir Boy," Pharus, still so young, is confronted with painful choices that will play out for the rest of his life.

Tarell McCraney: If you're from where people like Pharus and myself are from, the options that are coming before you are limited, in terms of what you can be in life, or what you see that you can be, what you're told that you can be, what infrastructures are there that you can actually achieve.

And you have to make those decisions pretty early, because the other options are, here's this drug gang that you can get a part of.

Jeffrey Brown: That's a hard place to be, especially if you're 12 or 14 or...

Tarell McCraney: Many young people grow up in that environment even now. It's important for me to keep shining a light on that.

Jeffrey Brown: McCraney's writing is now showing up in a variety of forms, including a screenplay for the new Netflix film "High Flying Bird" by director Steven Soderbergh. And a new TV series titled "David Makes Man" is in production for the OWN Network, with Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan as executive producers.

In addition to all that, McCraney heads the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama.

Do you see a connective thread in your work?

Tarell McCraney: Oh, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Tarell McCraney: For sure.

Jeffrey Brown: And how do you define that?

Tarell McCraney: I know that I'm consistently working in a place of love and community, consistently working about black people in particular.

By only bringing your true idiosyncratic self, the weird parts of you -- I had a professor who'd say, bring yourself, warts and all, to the table -- do you get the most out of your art.

Jeffrey Brown: What is it that you want people to walk out of the theater with?

Tarell McCraney: When you walk into "Choir Boy," I hope you walk in hungry for some questions, and then I hope you walk out full of questions, especially about how much room we make for each other.

At its root, that's the main question about "Choir Boy": How much space can we make for each other in our community, in our legacy, in our futures? Do we make enough space for the people who are different than us?

Jeffrey Brown: "Choir Boy" runs Broadway through March 10.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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