by Jane M. Von Bergen, For The Inquirer
Feb 15, 2022
Sometimes Jeffrey L. Page choreographs and directs the performances of singers such as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Jazmine Sullivan. Sometimes he teaches opera at The Juilliard School in New York, in between his regular teaching load at Harvard University. Sometimes Page is in Japan, directing and choreographing plays there, or else he’s on Broadway, where he’s remounting a reimagined version of “1776,” opening in May.
Now he’s in Philly , as resident artist at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, directing and choreographing its upcoming show, “Choir Boy.”
“Philadelphia means a lot to me,” said Page, who grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of the Arts. “I was a horrible student. I was surprised and glad that any college accepted me, much less the University of the Arts. It completely shifted me. Philadelphia caught that very delicate moment of a child becoming a man child.”
What Page finds distinctive about Philadelphia is the way each group in the city — Black, white, gay, all of them and more — strives hard to speak in one Philly voice.
“It’s an amalgamation of a bunch of cultures coming together and finding a way to call themselves a singular community,” said Page. “There’s something energizing about that. All the people — the Black people, the Latino community — they are reckoning on how to come together, how our voices matter, and I think that is stunning.”
Page credits one of his Philly mentors, the late Walter Dallas, former artistic director of Freedom Theatre, with a key question that informed Page’s work on Choir Boy. Page said Dallas told him to always ask himself, “ ‘Why is this work necessary? How is this work relevant to where I am and where society is at this moment?’ ”
“Choir Boy is speaking about the masks we wear,” Page said.
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Academy Award-winning writer of “Moonlight,” Choir Boy tells the story of a young, gay Black man who must find his way in a Black male chorus.
“He’s a queer boy, so because of that, a lot of the ways in which he thinks, and the ways he lives his life, it’s kind of on the hush,” Page said. “When things are on the hush, you are forced to be retrofitted into someone else’s idea of normality. It makes you a bit schizophrenic.”
The lesson we should take from Choir Boy, Page said, is that everyone is tamping down something, hoping to release that relentless submersion enough to “just breathe.” He hopes that the audience will walk out feeling inspired to “take advantage of every moment, to live out loud.”
And, to sing out loud. Page promises many singing-in-shower songs — gospel, spiritual, and R&B — in Choir Boy. Or, go ahead, sing on Broad Street.
Feb. 18 through March 13, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org Masks and vaccination proof required.