About halfway through Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy,” at D.C.’s Studio Theatre through February 22, there’s a terrific scene in which two schoolboys get in a confrontation about the true meaning of Negro spirituals. Bobby (Keith Antone), a bully who’s also the headmaster’s nephew, argues that songs like “Wade in the Water” are coded messages teaching slaves how to escape. Pharus (Jelani Alladin), the play’s hero, a music-loving kid with a camp manner, says that there’s no evidence for this view. It’s not just wishful thinking—it actually diminishes the slaves’ accomplishments.

Bobby argues that the spirituals “weren’t just” songs about God, they were coded rules and maps.

“You keep saying they weren’t just,” Pharus jabs back. In other words, why would spirituals become better if they had a material, this-worldly purpose? Couldn’t the most important purpose of a spiritual be, well, spiritual?

But as the argument progresses Pharus’s own language becomes not religious, but emotional and even political. The spirituals, he argues, encouraged slaves, gave them the strength to endure, and inaugurated the line of exhortatory black rhetoric which culminated in Barack Obama’s “Yes we can!”

This scene almost stands as a summary of the play itself. “Choir Boy” is about the struggles of a gay teen coming of age in a black, Christian prep school for boys; but it’s also about the complex interweaving of religion, ambition, and emotion. In Studio’s staging it’s almost entirely effective. This story could easily be melodramatic—McCraney makes several heavy-handed choices in terms of character development and dialogue—but the committed actors and stylized use of singing give it an emotional power which carries it over its occasional soapy lapses.

The Charles R. Drew School has never had a student like Pharus before. He’s portrayed with tenderness and nuance—all the boys’ actors are terrific—by Alladin, who also gets to show off his gorgeous falsetto. Pharus has a naturally more feminine manner (“Who came to make a joyful noooooooooise?!”), which he exaggerates into the self-defensive camp which is the other side of shame. “Choir Boy” isn’t a play about “bullying,” a term which defines the problem as a matter of individual misbehavior. It’s a play about an entire culture which targets, harasses, and sides against a boy before he even understands why—before he has any idea of the standards to which he can’t, and then won’t, conform.

This culture is a Christian culture, and Jesus occasionally does rear his wounded head. He pops up in the school’s poignant, ironic alma mater: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way/To be happy in Jesus/Than to trust and obey.”

But mostly the God of Drew is “The Lord,” the powerful ruler and judge who gives or withholds favor, not Jesus the man—or the Lamb, the Prince of Peace. Christians have so many images of God that we can pick the ones which suit our preferences, unfortunately. The school attempts to balance between the three most prominent elements of set designer Jason Sherwood’s backdrop: a crucifix, a sports trophy, and a portrait of our first black President. The choir is a way to honor God, but also an arena for the singers’ ambitions: Pharus knows he should sing solo at graduation because “I would go glory—as only I can! Lord, use me!”

The story of Pharus’s shifting relationships with the other boys in the choir and with the strict headmaster (Marty Austin Lamar) is told in a mix of short scenes and a capella gospel songs. Perhaps the most electric scene in the play takes place in the boys’ showers. The actors strip down and take their places in a wash of spotlight and shadow. They show their tensions and longings through glances and gestures as they sing “Motherless Child.” It’s a beautiful piece of work: emotionally realistic (every actual gay teen in this setting, like many straight teens, associates the locker room with a complex mix of desire, confusion, and fear), expressionist in style. For me the fact that the song is about a mother, and a mother’s voice calling her child home, made it even more powerful. The memory of a woman enters that all-male space and, because she is an outsider there, she can offer the hope of rescue and refuge.

The gospel selections are perfectly-chosen and haunting. They’re examples of how sometimes the best way to express what’s in one’s own heart and soul is to use somebody else’s words. The play itself, by speaking through the songs, enters into a tradition even as it critiques the culture which that tradition helps create.

“Choir Boy” includes some nuanced portrayals of obedience. It’s not a purely individualist play. These characters are boys used to shaping their lives around others’ words and demands, as neatly summarized in the one-sided phone conversation we hear between a boy and his parents: “I will. I am. I won’t.” You just accept your role in the world—and long to be accepted in that role, as in Pharus’s declarations that he is and wants only to be “a Drew man.”

As the play moves toward its climax its grip slackens, its wicked humor becomes rarer, and its predictable twists and occasional clunky dialogue become more noticeable. (“You were preparing for somebody to hurt Pharus. You weren’t prepared for somebody to love him.”) And this is one of those artworks which is ostensibly about the clash between religion and sexuality, but only sexuality gets a fully imagined voice. McCraney is much better at portraying the rush of first love and the wild glee of ambition than he is at voicing sincere religious faith. That makes his play more generic and comfortable for theater audiences than it wants to be.

McCraney is a truly talented playwright. The skeleton of his play has too much AfterSchool Special in it, but his experimental style and heartfelt emotion put beautiful flesh on the familiar bones.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.