Justen Ross currently plays Pharus in the Jeffrey L. Page directed production of “Choir Boy” at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Pharus is a student at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, an institution with one mission: to ensure that all students obediently fit into an outdated conception of masculinity, which is readily enforced by Headmaster Morrow (Akeem Davis). The show focuses on five students who are in the school choir, led by Pharus, who is anointed as the best singer in the group.
This coming-of-age story centers on Pharus accepting his queerness and figuring out if he can express that side of himself while also still being a “Drew” man. His classmates have decided that those two sides of Pharus cannot co-exist and are determined to make Pharus choose between the two.
I spoke with Ross to discuss the parts of himself he brought to his portrayal of Pharus. Our conversation was healing, and you can get tickets to his performance here. Choir Boy runs at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre until March 13th.
Read our conversation below:
Alexi Chacon (AC): When I saw the show, I noticed that there was a large emphasis on what it meant to be a “Drew” man, and how it was steeped in some regressive conceptions of masculinity. Do you find yourself challenging those same regressive, outdated forms of masculinity in your own day to day life outside of your character?
Justen Ross (JR): Absolutely. Growing up, my father was an assistant principal of a charter school named Charles R. Drew. I went to a Catholic high school, so I know what it’s like to be in an all-black, all male institution where piety is at the center of its values. It had a big influence on me, especially having a father figure like Headmaster Morrow play out in real life. I know what it’s like to constantly have that male gaze that oppressive dated, gaze of masculinity on you. I know what it’s like, and I am on my healing journey. Now, as a queer man, I’m figuring out what’s the value in being a man if there’s any.
Growing up, it was survival. You wear the Jordans’ and a hoodie and a hat. For me, that’s how I survived, instead of being loud with my crop top. That’s how I maintain my status and my safety within the community that I was brought up in. To this day, I still struggle with wanting to wear certain things and wanting to talk a certain way, but I have to keep my safety at the front of my mind. But as I’m healing, I’m learning that I’m beautiful the way that I am in whatever way I want to express myself. But it does take a little extra work to feel safe in those expressions.
AC: You brought so much of yourself into your portrayal of Pharus. How did you take care of yourself after a performance where you had to re integrate yourself into a prior mindset and then play out the worst outcome of navigating those really dangerous environments?
JR: Thank you, first of all, thank you for asking that. Theater has been co-opted by white supremacy in so many ways. And one of the ways that theatre has been co-opted is we as actors are taught how to prioritize warming up, but we aren’t taught how to prioritize warming down, and how to come out of something. So I appreciate you for asking that. When I was younger, I was more straight passing, and it was because I changed myself and I tweaked myself. When Headmaster Morrow says tighten up, I tightened up and I tightened up so tight, my muscles are tight, even now I’m struggling to release them from all the years of carrying that baggage of just sucking it in. So coming to the role of Pharus has been so liberating. There is a lot of myself in it. And I would say a lot of myself that has been lying dormant. This has been a process where I’ve been able find my voice truly and find out what the voice sounds like when it is loud and proud and warming down.
When I warm down I daydream a little bit and give myself three things that Justin is grateful for in his life right now. So at the moment, I’m grateful for my mother in ballroom and how often she checks in. I’m grateful that my three friends who are here and staying with me. And I’m also grateful that I got through that show safely. That’s a little bit of what warming down looks like to me. And then I walk back into the world as Justin, and I feel safe, and my cast mates help with that. They’re just the best.
AC: I wanted to ask more about the cast as well, because in the play, within this group of students there are clear divisions based on homophobia despite their shared experiences as black boys. They’re so afraid to be emotionally intimate with each other. I assume that didn’t translate over to the friendships you developed as a cast. Tell me more about that. How did the rapport develop?
JR: I was doing the first the first week of rehearsal on Zoom. I was at home while all the boys were rehearsing in Philadelphia. I felt isolated from the boys in the same way that Pharus feels during the show. The moment I touched down in Philly, the boys said let’s meet up. And they asked if we could sing through some songs and just instantly the melody was like butter. When we were together it was like The Temptations or the Jackson Five, it was beautiful.
We hang out every night after the show, we watch movies together, we see other plays together, we go out to eat together, we share stories about our life, we are family, those are my brothers. It makes this show much easier because we have a lot of intimate moments on the stage, cursing slurs, intimate touch. And it makes it so much more comfortable because we all really love each other. And we’re invested in each other’s well-being offstage.
AC: I want to touch back on mentorship. It’s clear that Headmaster Morrow in this show both deeply cares and recognizes some of the best parts of Pharus. But, in an effort to protect Pharus also tears down aspects of himself that are integral to who Pharus is. It was painful to watch some of that mentorship, play out on stage. Can you tell me maybe about some positive mentors in your life that built you up, who recognized the best aspects of yourself and amplified them?
JR: I gotta give the trophy the black women in my life. My mother, my auntie, my Nana, my mentor, Jade Lambert Smith. The first person to tell me that I was enough was a black woman. The men in my life, they like to bring that structure and the realism in their guidance, they want to make things tangible. And the women in my life taught me how to dream. They taught me how to value myself and value things that I can’t see or can’t feel. That’s so important because in the show Pharus is having his dreams snatched from him, time, and time, and time again.
One person I’d like to highlight in particular is Jade Lambert Smith, acting coach, and teaching artist in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the reason that I’m here today. She’s the first person to tell me that I could do it. She trusted me. A lot of kids need that. She’s the reason for it all. I have about 1000 Moms Alexi and she’s one of them. Black women are my rock.
AC: It’s so important to, to dream, especially for communities of color, because to dream is an act of resistance. I have my own people who have taught me to dream and to not be afraid. I was going through the playbill, and I read that y’all have an Equity Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Intimacy Consultant, which I think is so critical to the topics being explored in this play. How did she make tangible changes in the show to make sure that everyone felt safe?
JR: I don’t know if we would feel as comfortable and as safe in the show if it was not for Miss Noelle. This black woman who came in and was the rock and held it down. What she did. She came in and made sure we were all in agreement on what our community guidelines were. What do we expect from each other when we’re working on stage and off? What parts of our bodies are okay to touch? You can come to me, and I can share anonymously, if you ever have a problem with something. That was her job. And our director Jeffrey L. Page is somebody I love working with, but he can move really quick. Her job was to make sure that in the midst of all of that urgency, that we were moving at the speed of trust with one another, so that we don’t move too fast, slip up and harm one another. And if there was ever a day we were uncomfortable, she had a plan B for us. She’s so important.
AC: What’s next for you? What can we expect?
JR: I’ll be doing a short film with Donja R. Love, an amazing HIV-positive playwright, the first week of April. I think that’s all I can disclose. ‘m writing a television series/web series. It can be done in many mediums. I write poetry and I’ll be in Atlanta performing at poetry slams, and I’m also a ballroom girl so I’ll be practicing my voguing as part of the Juicy Couture Chapter in Atlanta.