Choir Boy, by Oscar-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) is ostensibly a straight play, but music is central to its plot: the story follows the struggles of Pharus, an openly gay young man at a conservative private school, for whom choir is both a joy and an escape (the talented young cast performs gospel songs at various points throughout the show).
His nemesis, the frustrated and occasionally aggressive Bobby, is played by J. Quinton Johnson, a recent Hamilton alum who’s also acted onscreen in films like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some. For Johnson, having a great personal playlist is essential to getting in the right mindset for performance every night. “I had an acting teacher who’d always say there’s no such thing as character, it’s you in the circumstances,” Johnson says. “If I can activate myself, it will serve any character I play. I need to create a playlist that gets my heart going.” Here’s what he’s had on repeat throughout Choir Boy‘s run, which ends March 10.
“CandyMan,” Zedd, Aloe Blacc
“I remember hearing it on an M&M commercial — the remake of that classic song,” says Johnson. “I just loved the sound. I always love people who can flip a classic song and make it contemporary. It ramps something up in me that feels very celebratory, like I can conquer all. I can use that energy for Bobby and his kind of blind passion that results in him going about things maybe not in the best way. And it gives me a sense of, I can attack anything.”
“The Man,” Aloe Blacc
Johnson first heard this song in a Beats headphones commercial, and recognized Aloe Blacc as “that guy from ‘I Need a Dollar.'” When he sings each night in Choir Boy, he’s inspired by how Blacc “gets such power out of his upper register. It doesn’t feel strained or forced.”
“There’s something about the drum pocket in it, this crazy ghost-note-y snare that’s carried throughout the song that gives it this nice swing and bop,” Johnson says. “I like to listen to things that put you in that space to nod your head but also to notice certain licks. And any time you hear an electric guitar solo like that, it’s like, ‘Let’s pursue what I need to pursue at full force.'”
“Sunday Candy,” Donny Trumpet and the Social Experiment
Choir Boy employs arrangements of many spirituals, and this track “melds gospel and kinda new age, pop sounds,” Johnson explains. “Being able to hear that gospel influence does prep me for the gospel arrangements we have to sing each night. And some great beats in there just get the heart rate up.”
“Thneedville,” The Lorax Singers and Rob Riggle
“You gotta get into ‘Thneedville’!” Johnson exclaims. “It’s the opening number to the most recent Lorax movie, which sounds like it needs to be a Broadway production number yesterday. You immediately understand the world of the Lorax. It’s this intricate choral singing with everyone doing the same melismas together and it’s so clean. And the lead singer on it — there are notes in that song I can’t even think about let along vocalize. I love attempting to do that in my warmup. Bobby is very juvenile, so to listen to something with that cartoonish feel helps me get to that place of less logic, less reasoning, unabated excitement and passion.”
“Smile” and “Soul Refreshing,” Robert Randolph
Though Bobby is often hot-headed, there are moments in the play that show he’s capable of being more rooted, Johnson says. These tracks “allow me to ground myself when I need to in the show’s circumstances.”
“You and Me,” Marc E Bassy; “Sit Still Look Pretty,” Daya; “Ain’t It Fun,” Paramore; “All Night,” Big Boi; and “Electricity,” Silk City with Dua Lipa
This run of the playlist is “my party songs,” Johnson says. “They make me wanna bop, and they drum up positive energy. If I come into each scene with the swagger of ‘You and Me,’ the swing of ‘Sit Still Look Pretty,’ I feel like I’m cool, I’m good. ‘All Night’ has that Southern swag to it. ‘Ain’t It Fun,’ that’s the teen angst Bobby has bubbling up. They all have an element of cool — they’re not quite bubble gum. If I drum up that energy as Quinton and go onstage as Bobby with the fuel from these energetic songs, and I deal in real time with the conflict of not getting what [Bobby wants], therein lies my preparation as an actor.”
“What If I Go,” Mura Masa and Bonzai
A track that feels “aggressive and contained,” a lot like Bobby himself. “It wants to open up, but it’s like there’s a ceiling on it,” Johnson says.
“Lord You’re Mighty,” JJ Hairston
A pure gospel call-and-response number. A Texas native who grew up mostly going to a Methodist church, Johnson wasn’t totally immersed in gospel as a kid, but “gospel’s always been in me,” he says. “It was always around, and I started to play more church music when I got into high school and got more interested in playing piano, drums, saxophone. I always had an ear to it, but once I started to study it more, I just had to train my voice to make those sounds.”