Wednesday, April 26, 2023

a moment in the day: stream

Evening, and I'm sitting on the futon bed upstairs with Nicholas, watching the live stream, on my phone, of the celebration of life for Darcelle XV at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. I hadn't meant to, didn't know there'd be a live stream, but I sat down to rest after helping Stephen move the furniture around in the living room downstairs, and glanced at my phone for a moment, and there it was, and so I clicked in.

The celebration is tiny in my hand, a little square on the screen, most of that square just the bright amber color of theater lights. A tiny figure in the center, a man giving reminiscences on stage.

Years back, when Portland was newish to me, my aunt Kathy was all about going to Darcelle's. I kind of loved that it became our family tradition, that for a while whenever someone came to visit from out of town, we'd go to Darcelle's. Kathy always getting us front-row seats and shoving our hands full of dollar bills, especially for when Darcelle came out in the assless chaps to sing "Rhinestone Cowboy."

Sometimes in the early part of the pandemic, I'd think, when all of this is done with, I'm telling Kathy we have to celebrate by going to Darcelle's again.

It's been just over a year, now, since Kathy's been gone.

I lay my head back against the wall and look up through the skylight to the block of evening light that hangs just over my head.

Stephen's voice from the bottom of the stairs, calling my name. I get up and go over to stand at the top and look down.

He says, "I had an idea."

He draws out the word idea. And the smile on his face is sheepish and hoping. He wants me to help him move the furniture again.

He tells me he thinks the table in the basement would fit perfectly in that one empty spot by the couch and if I wouldn't mind, just a little more...

I say, "Sure!" Somehow this tiny square of tribute on my phone feels too sacred to turn off or leave behind, so I take my phone with me. Down the stairs. Down into the basement, where we heft the table and carry it carefully up and out the back door, into the evening air, through the backyard gate and heading to the front of the house, the Portland Gay Men's Chorus singing from my back pocket.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Choir Boy at Portland Center Stage

On Friday, Stephen and I went to see a play for the first time since before the pandemic began. Gosh, how I've missed the live theater experience: the sets and lighting, the satisfaction of watching real bodies on stage, the feeling of laughing in a theater filled with laughter and applauding in the shared thunder of an audience.

The show was Choir Boy, and it's playing now at Portland Center Stage. It's the story of a handful of teens who sing in the venerated choir of an elite Black boarding school—and in particular Pharus, the group's star singer and choir leader. The play opens with Pharus, a junior, singing a solo at the commencement ceremony for the senior graduating class. His performance is interrupted by the homophobic taunts of Bobby, fellow choir boy and nephew of the school's headmaster. When, later, Pharus is called into the headmaster's office and admonished for getting distracted during the song, the boy refuses to rat out the guilty party out of loyalty to the schoolyard code that says you don't snitch on a classmate.

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play that became the film Moonlight, Choir Boy explores themes of race, class, sexuality, coming of age, striving for connection, and most of all, trying to hold onto one's pride of self.

Pharus starts out with plenty of that. He's confident, ambitious, conspicuously queer, effervescent. He's got a light inside and somehow, even in this all-boys school full of rules and expectations, he isn't afraid to put on the high beams. You get the sense he can't not shine as bright as he does. At first. Many coming of age stories are about a character starting small and growing, starting quiet and finding a voice. In Choir Boy we watch Pharus's already-present shine dip and dim against the shadows of events that threaten his sense of self.

Within this tension, though, and the creeping darkness, the show is funny and clever. And actually: infused with joy. Because of the music.

Drawing on gospel and spiritual music, including the traditional songs known as Negro Spirituals, the music in Choir Boy is wonderful, sung in gorgeous harmony, often a cappella, by Isaiah Reynolds (Pharus), Luther Brooks IV (Bobby), Gerrin Delane Mitchell (Junior, Bobby's sidekick), Delphon "DJ" Curtis Jr. (David, a bookish classmate who wants to become a priest), and Wildlin Pierrevil (AJ, Pharus's roommate). Every song made me euphoric. Even when the music was there to evoke less joyful feelings—melancholy, longing—the beauty of it still made me euphoric. I'd find myself sitting up straight in my seat, leaning forward, as if to get closer to it. At the end of one song, the man directly in front of me raised his arms and made jazz hands, or maybe praise hands, as the applause erupted. 

I liked the minimal set, the towering columns and brick-wall background that made you feel like you were inside the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. When we were in the shower room (where the boys wardrobed in nothing but towels made for opportunities for both tension and vulnerability), they rolled in a big tiled half-wall structure to denote the shower. When we were in the dorm room shared by Pharus and AJ, they rolled in two beds, Pharus's decorated with warm white Christmas lights, maybe alluding to that don't-hide-it-under-a-bushel light of his character.

This dorm room is the scene of some of the most important moments in the show, exchanges between Pharus and his roommate AJ that open up Pharus's character and gift him with some of the understanding and connection he needs as that bushel comes down. 

Watching Choir Boy, you do notice that the source material could use just a little more meat on its bones—the other boys are drawn a bit broadly and the premise isn't new—but this is made up for by the transcendent joy of its music, and the deep meaning of the power and tradition of that music. With clever dialogue and the always-skilled stagecraft of Portland Center Stage, it's a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking show. It was a great production to experience after my pandemic-induced three-year theater dry spell. 

And truly, I'd see it again just for the music.

And it occurs to me as I say that last thing: this isn't what I should be getting out of going to see Choir Boy. This statement comes from a place of privilege. Me as a white woman, sitting at the edge of my seat enjoying the euphoric rush of beautiful sound. This music was not created for my enjoyment. The play goes into some of its true importance—and it's not my place to whitesplain it—but if you're interested in learning more about the amazing music the play draws from, Portland Center Stage wrote a great article about it here

Or hold off on the article and save it for reading in your program from your theater seats, Choir Boy runs through May 14, and more information is here.

Photo captions:

1) L-R: Gerrin Delane Mitchell, Isaiah Reynolds, Luther Brooks IV, Wildlin Pierrevil, and Delphon "DJ" Curtis Jr. in “Choir Boy”; photo by Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

2) L-R: Luther Brooks IV, Gerrin Delane Mitchell, Isaiah Reynolds, and Delphon "DJ" Curtis Jr. in “Choir Boy”; photo by Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Poster design by Nick Orr.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Three moments in three days: dream

In the dream, I'm walking out of the theater and into another large space, open, like a convention center or an airport, high ceilings. And coming toward me going the other way is Kathy. She looks the way she used to look except her hair is pure blond, no pink. She's waving hello to someone in the crowd around us, still coming at me but not like she notices me or not like she wants to see me. 

When she passes, I follow. "Kathy, I want to talk to you!" 

It's coming up on a year since she died, and both of those facts are unbelievable to me.

As I follow, the space around us draws wider and emptier, the people disappear. Nothing all around, just Kathy and me.

I don't know what I want to say to her when she turns. I ask her how she is. I ask for a hug. I ask if she's seen my dad.

"Oh yeah," she says. "He comes here, too."


Next night, I try to go there again. I lie in bed and picture the place, the high ceilings, the nothing all around. Try to dream my way back there, but it doesn't work.


Next night, I try to go there again. I lie in bed and picture the place, the high ceilings, the nothing all around. Try to dream my way back there, but it doesn't work.