Choir Boy

28 Feb

Choir Boy explores the experience of a young queer man in an environment that frowns on difference.

It’s an absolutely beautiful piece. The songs are traditional spirituals performed a cappella, and with the guidance of musical director Allen René Louis, the cast present them brilliantly. Directors Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo elicit wonderful dramatic performances from the entire cast, and splendidly choreographed movement by Tarik Frimpong aids both the musical numbers and the scenic transitions.  

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script is captivating and thought-provoking. Set in a boys’ high school of predominantly African-American students, it’s a fascinating exploration of the tensions within a group that we – on the other side of the globe – can be tempted to perceive as monolithic. Oh, if everyone just stayed in their box, life would be so simple ….and dull, and oppressive, and untrue. (Individuals remain in their allotted boxes only in bad art, and worse politics.)

Pharus is the choir leader; he’s gifted both musically and  intellectually, and he wants those gifts recognised, but his queerness challenges those around him. Darron Hayes’s portrayal of Pharus is utterly engaging and deeply moving. He presents a glorious talent, whose oscillation between cockiness and self-doubt is an understandable reaction to a small world. 

But the play offers multiple scenes in which individuals refuse to be contained or constrained.  Anthony, Pharus’ roommate (in a uplifting portrayal of openheartedness by Quinton Rofail Rich) shares an anecdote about his shock at his brother’s homophobia. Pharus delivers an electric speech challenging reductive interpretations of traditional spirituals: were they really just code use by the enslaved to fool the oppressors or, like all human expression, are they complex, multifaceted and so truly alive? Pharus even engages in a surprisingly stimulating verbal quibble with his nemesis, Bobby (portrayed by Zarif with a magnificent aura of brooding menace.) Should we speak of “slaves” or “the enslaved”? The former was good enough for Michelle and Barack, but ways of seeing develop, offering further opportunities for humanity to flourish. No box is ever big enough.

McCraney creates two adult characters who offer the younger men models of maturity, that open-eyed acceptance of complexity. There’s the teacher who runs a critical thinking course, portrayed by Tony Sheldon with that delightful collision of social awkwardness and intellectual grace of the academic. And there’s Headmaster Marrow, played by Robert Harrell, in a powerful portrait of authority and concern. Marrow must maintain school rules, and that might be of little help to Pharus, but inherent in the principal’s discussions of school boards and student codes is a hidden, hopeful reminder that our judgements are created things. All can be made anew.  

Paul Gilchrist

Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Presented by National Theatre of Parramatta in association with Sydney WorldPride

Until 11 March at Riverside Theatres

Image by  Phil Erbacher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: