By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For The Birmingham Times
Carlton Bell II, wanted to make the Birmingham Black Repertory Theatre Company’s (BBRTC) first season memorable so Bell settled on a play that was impactful, current and identifiable.
This weekend (August 23 – 25) the BBRTC and Birmingham Festival Theatre will present the Tony Award-Winning play “Choir Boy.”
Written by Oscar Award Winner Tarell Alvin McCraney, Choir Boy centers on the story of a young gay black man and a battle between identity and community.
“It’s about a group of high school students that have this crazy drama relationship with each other, all of them do, and trying to find those moments as to where we can see friendship, comradery and at times strife…at times they’re really sad and at times they’re really happy,” said Bell, who is a non-binary person.
Bell, artist, founder and artistic director of BBRTC, said the company was established in 2019 to be about black people across the diaspora. “What I was interested in doing is telling stories about all kinds of black people…black queer people, black women, telling and showing all of the colors that we are and not just a couple of them.”
Choir Boy is about a preparatory academy named Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys that has been dedicated to the education of strong, ethical black men, and explores their emotional coming-of-age struggles. Bell said that the play is about, “brotherhood, spirituality, acceptance, and blackness in all of its forms”.
“It is ultimately a play about wanting to be respected, wanting to be loved and what that looks like specifically with black men,” Bell said. “I’ve been handling that with kid gloves and being careful about the intentions behind it because every character in the play is questioning that, and I think as people, especially now with the political climate, we’re all questioning that with our beliefs– do we want to have people like us and kind of just go with the flow, or [do we want to question] how we want people to perceive us?”
Bell insisted that the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney made it clear it’s a play about music.
“In fact, the first time I saw the play there was no choreography and it was done a capella,” Bell said. “Every song in the play, we stripped down and rearranged the music. Our director of music Aija Penix arranged all the music herself and they are all Negro spirituals…and they’re all a capella…the only sound effects you’ll hear are school bells…”
Bell, 29, said, “I knew that I wanted to do a show that had not been done here, that was the first thing on my mind. And, I knew that I wanted to do a show that was near and dear to my heart because I was pretty sure I wanted to direct it.”
Bell said they had been chasing Choir Boy for the past couple years. “I submitted for it when it was off-Broadway. I applied for the rights and wrote a letter explaining why I should be granted the rights to do the show and why it was so important, and we got the rights to do it and we’ll be the first company to do it since its Broadway run [January 8-March 10 2019].
Choir Boy has a cast of seven centered around a kid named Pharus, an openly queer kid at a legendary all-black boarding school. “All he wants throughout the whole show is to be the lead in the choir and for people to respect his talent as much as they respect who he is as a person,” Bell said.
“The obstacles in the play are pretty much with everyone around him…,” Bell said. “He has a headmaster named Headmaster Marrow who is just trying to keep the peace and keep his job.”
Bell, a Five Points South resident and Tacoma, Washington native moved to Birmingham at age 10. After graduating high school, Bell attended college at Florida State University, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater. Bell is a full-time actor / artist, artistic director of BBRTC, with an affiliation at the Birmingham Children’s Theater as a resident artist.
Bell’s a trained actor, singer, and dancer who can teach a dance class, “but I can’t be the one to dance it because I have two left feet,” Bell said. “Anything music and theater wise I’m trained in… I’ve taken directing classes and I’m also trained in film and screenwriting.”
Attending sleep away theater camp annually at the age of 10 at Alabama program called 3-T, was monumental for Bell’s artistic development.
“It was life-affirming in a sense that I had never been around that many black performers my age, and every summer I went to this sleep away camp and all we did was ‘the work”, the nitty-gritty up until 2 a.m. …”
“The Stars Program at Virginia Samford Theater (VST) was also one of the programs I did throughout the years. All of those programs had a big influence on me, especially when I was younger and I think now, this is going on my second year working with Birmingham Children’s Theater, and it’s one of the few companies that I work with in town . . . I really enjoy the way they care about their people and the steps and the integrity that they take to make sure the work is done correctly,” Bell said.
Asked what the public can take away from the work, Bell said, “that blackness can exist without the scope of whiteness behind it or anything else behind it. I want people to walk away with a true sense of pride from what the city can accomplish with limited resources. I want the city to wrap its mind around black people not being monolithic; specifically the theater community.”
Bell continued, “I hope that people wrap their minds around getting their stories told too, I hope they walk out and say, ‘you know what, I want to tell [my] story, and I hope everyone gets to tell their stories… I hope that this is an inspiration, that it is not only possible but that it can happen any day, you just have to get up and decide to do it.”
A number of organizations helped with the project including The Game Changer Project [a black LGBTQ centered organization focused on health]; The Community Foundation of Birmingham; Aids Alabama and PFlag (Parents, Friends, Lesbians and Gays), the nation’s biggest organization for parents of queer children and Birmingham Festival Theater.
Tickets are available at https://www.bftonline.org/tickets-1