Review: Choir Boy at Riverside Theatres

WorldPride has arrived, and with it comes the Australian premiere of Choir Boy, a coming-of-age play by the Oscar-winning writer of Moonlight, Tarell Alvin McCraney, co-directed by Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo.

Pharus (Darron Hayes) is in his senior year at Charles R. Drew Prep School— a private school for African-American boys— and is thrilled to be elected leader of the gospel choir. He walks in to the new school year with big ideas and enthusiasm. But Pharus, despite his considerable talent, isn’t fully accepted by the group, particularly by the Principal’s nephew, Bobby (Zarif), who hurls homophobic slurs at him during the choir’s opening performance. Pharus must decide between standing up for himself, or playing the part of the ‘good Drew boy’ who doesn’t snitch or rock the boat.

The 100-minute play predominantly takes place in the choir room, the classroom and the boarding house, punctuated by acapella performances of Black spirituals and church hymns by the ensemble of schoolboys. Allen René Louis’s musical direction is exemplary, and all of the show’s most striking moments come from the haunting and soulful choral interludes.

It’s worth noting that white Australian audiences might struggle to understand the full context of the play because we are not the target audience. There was, for example, a lengthy scene where the teenagers debate the meaning of Black spirituals— a type of Christian folksong which originates from slavery— which lost me for a moment. But even though I lacked the cultural context, the performances were strong enough that I understood the essence of the scene, even though I didn’t know exactly what they were arguing about.

The schoolboys (Hayes, Zarif, Gareth Dutlow, Abu Kebe, Tawanda Muzenda, Quinton Rofail Rich, and Theo Williams) have phenomenal voices and the charisma to match. Credit must go to casting director Rhys Velasquez for their work in gathering such a talented ensemble of young performers who, apart from Hayes (who reprised his role from the Colarado run), are all Australian-based. I also particularly enjoyed Tony Sheldon’s comic turn as Mr Pendleton, the elderly teacher tasked with preparing the boys for college.

I liked Lighting Designer Karen Norris’ selective use of colour, keeping the lighting palette restrained except for meaningful bursts of colour in key moments. The only letdown of this production was the set, which I found to be bleak and uncreative. Although one could interpret the cold, sparse monotonous set to be a commentary on the harshness of institutions like high school and the church on young gay teenagers, a more likely explanation is some sort of behind-the-scenes issue, because no designer is credited for the set in the program, only its ‘realisation’ by PaperJam Productions.

The talented directing team of Dimitriadis and Okenyo have taken McCraney’s writing and delivered a tender and moving story that reckons with masculinity, sexuality and spirituality amongst young black men. As the cast took their bows to a standing ovation on opening night, many a tear was shed in the audience.

Don’t miss your chance to see one of the best shows of Sydney WorldPride. If you do miss it in Sydney, Choir Boy will also be performing at Wollongong Town Hall from 22nd – 25th March.

Jo Bradley


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