Soulful school sounds

Choir Boy (Riverside National Theatre of Parramatta)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

March 15 – 18

Pharus Young (Darron Hayes) is blessed and highly-favoured; the choir boy of the play’s title is not just a member of his school’s singing group, but its newly-elected lead by an almost unanimous vote. Pharus has an intense passion for singing and motivation to be the best choir leader in the 50-year history of Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. And it is his story is the focus of the 1 hour and 40 min highly-acclaimed coming of age drama “Choir Boy”, playing at QPAC for a limited season, direct from its Australian premiere in Sydney.

When legacy student Bobby (Zarif) disrupts Pharus’ debut performance as choir leader with a whispered racial and homophobic slur, assumption is that Bobby’s punishment from his also-uncle Headmaster Marrow (Robert Harrell) is Pharus’ doing. Did he snitch against student code of never telling on a brother? Is his lying in response to accusations of the students he needs to lead? How can he continue to manage his Choirboy peers of the tradition-bound institution? These are the questions that begin our experience of what is ultimately a much more layered show.

Academy Award-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script is delicate, but also, at times, brutal in its coverage of big issues around young Black people dealing with the very real world issues of homophobia, classism, and gender expectations, serving, the playwright notes, “as a reminder of how far we’d come, but … still, as an immediate lament on how very far we have to go”. Conflict is inbuilt in the story as Pharus tries to maintain his shine in a world of expectation around masculine conformity, yet still, as an audience we experience its narrative without any real idea of where it is going to take us. Even our anticipation around the play-out of hinted-at story threads is not necessarily realised according to expectation, which adds to its engagement along with education.

When former teacher Mr Pendleton (Tony Sheldon) comes out of semi-retirement to guide students in preparation for College essays worthy of early acceptance, discussion in his course in creative thinking around liberal arts takes us to some of the show’s surprisingly profound moments. Explanation of the need for language modification around terms associated with enslavement, for example, leads into an eloquent, affecting almost-monologue from passionate Pharus in evaluation of the liberation of spirituals that is thought-provoking in its consideration of the worth of aesthetic value comparative to pragmatism. Hayes inhabits the amplified, but also genuine, character of the story’s scholarship student protagonist, in so many ways, but mostly in his determination to be ‘just Pharus’. Perfect timing ensures his sassy delivery lands with the right effect, but still allows room for vulnerability to peak through. And his voice is of an-angel in the show’s choral numbers.

Hayes’s is one of many fine performances from the accomplished Australian and International cast. Also of particular note is Zarif as antagonist Bobby, increasingly angular, angry and askew in his accelerating aggression and homophobic hate towards Pharus. Theo Williams gives an appropriately quietly-layered take on pressured David, and, Quinton Rofail Rich gives us a measured, well-rounded performance as AJ, Pharus’ boarding school best friend. Indeed, it is refreshing to see this supportive roommate relationship play out in such a lovely, loving way without being made into more than it is.

Soaring music (Music Direction by Allen René Louis) uplifts experience of the show and elevates its calibre in a number of ways. Soul-stirring a cappella tones accent themes and character journeys, starting with opening of the 49th commencement ceremony with the choir singing ‘Trust and Obey’. Directors Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo give audience members a production of much light and shade from cast and creatives alike. Just as there are moments of pathos as Pharus pleads to be left to lead, there are also vital occasions of much energy, such as when chairs are thumped in percussive ensemble emphasis in a dynamic ‘Rockin’ in Jerusalem’. No opportunity is missed as even the move of set pieces on and off stage is stylised.

“Choir Boy” is a moving story of sexuality, race, hope and a young gay man finding his voice, elevated by its unique blend of the candid language of high school hallways with the soulful sounds of gospel music. The Tony Award nominated musical drama represents a rare, but first-rate, mixture of spirituality and sexuality in its focus. And while the entertainment value is certainly high throughout, it also includes educative moments, meaning there is much for audiences to take away from its experience.

Photos c/o – Phil Erbacher


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