By Tarell Alvin McCraney. National Theatre of Parramatta. Directors Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 18 Feb – 11 March, 2023
Reviewed : February 18, 2023 *
Congratulations Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo! Your production of this touching, funny, sad, serious play is special in every way. You have reached into the heart of this very beautiful writing and allowed its messages – and your talented cast – to shine. That they shine so brightly as part of WorldPride makes this production even more special.
Choir Boy comes from the pen – and memories – of American playwright/academic Tarell Alvin McCraney, written in 2007, in the final year of his degree. As he reflected on the powerfully legible lessons” of 20 years of education, he realised that “the most valuable lessons came from my classmates. The bullying and isolation in school fed the fire to be close, to hold friends, true friends, tight.”
Choir Boy grew from that realisation. It’s about “young Black people dealing with the very real world issues of homophobia, classism and gender expectations” but its messages reach beyond that, and this production finds all of those messages. It finds them clearly but sensitively through humour and timing and music – and the characters that Dimitiadis and Okenyo have developed so carefully with their intuitive cast.
The play is set in the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a Catholic boarding school that aimed for its students to grow into “strong, ethical black men”. The boys wear their uniform with pride. Their shoes are as highly polished as their ambitions, the most immediate being a place in the “legendary’ school choir.
The seven students we meet have made it! One of the two tenors will lead them as they sing the school song for graduation. Will it be homophobic bully Bobby, the Headmaster’s nephew, or Pharus, a talented student who has suffered homophobic slurs for years? Will either of them find support from their fellow choristers? Junior, Bobby’s dutiful sidekick; AJ Pharus’s empathetic roommate; or David, the scholarship boy who aspires to being a pastor. Each character is complex. Each carries ‘baggage’ that is hidden behind their aspiration to be good “Drew Boys”.
Dimitriadis and Okenyo are sensitive to all of this, and to the humour which McCraney has infused into the dialogue, humour that takes the edge off the gravity of the themes, without losing their seriousness. Add the singing, the smart choreography, the creative use of light and shade – and the intensity of the direction – and this production does McCraney’s play, and his characters, proud. The boys, Headmaster Marrow and gloopy Mr Pendleton are real and amazingly tangible.
Pharus is happy at Drew: “Until I got to Drew, everybody didn’t like me but I had … I had space to let me be. That was what was good about being here.” Even though he feels secure, he still realises the need to hide his sexuality behind over-confidence and caution.
Darron Hayes finds that aware self-discipline in a stunning performance that reaches into the hearts of the audience. His timing – especially as he pulls himself together to overcome Pharus’s insecurity and cover it with smart, sassy repartee – is immaculate. So too is his beautiful rendition of the gospel music – and his canny delivery of the idea that the gospel songs held coded clues to help runaway slaves escape their oppressors. Hayes inhabits every aspect of this talented, ambitious young man struggling not to be who he really is.
Bobby is played by Zarif with a tightness of control that is both physical and expressive. It’s there in the way Bobby waits for just the right moment to break Pharus’s concentration with a racist slur; in the way Bobby watches … and quietly gloats. But there is more to Bobby than this – and Zarif shows his vulnerability as well, and, in the final moments of the play, a little of his shame.
Abu Kebe is Junior, Bobby’s follower, sometimes a little reluctant, but always ‘on side’. Kebe is a gifted performer who uses his eyes and body to say more than the words he thinks very carefully about uttering. The Junior he portrays know where it’s best to appear loyal – and how to let go enthusiastcally!
Theo Williams plays the ‘gentle giant’ David, acutely aware of how his scholarship depends on his grades and his behaviour. Williams makes him diffident, a little reclusive, anxious not to stand out, but acutely aware all the time of the precariousness of his position at Drew.
Quinton Rofail Rich is “AJ”, Pharus’s roommate and confidant. Rich is an astute performer who realises the importance of being in every moment. He watches, follows, uses tiny pauses to show the depth of his thinking, and the weight his words have in the context of the play.
Gareth Dutlow is the seventh member of the choir. He doesn’t speak often, but he too watches every moment, reacting with a slight frown, a knowing smile, an understanding touch. As the ‘swing’ in this production, every character is important to him, and he identifies with each them subtly throughout the production.
The two ‘educators’ in this special school are played by American actor Robert Harrell and one of Australian theatre’s National Treasures, Tony Sheldon.
Harrell brings the weight of command to his portrayal of Headmaster Marrow. He stands straight, hands controlled, voice stern. It is only when he is flummoxed by Pharus’s impudent remarks, or by his familial support for Bobby, that we see the chinks in his personality.
Mr Pendleton could be a combination of every dotty, fumbling, eager-to-be loved, easily mocked teacher McCraney remembers and Tony Sheldon finds all of that and more in a performance that is hilarious but totally restrained and beautifully controlled.
The two directors bring these characters together on an open stage where space is used skilfully, where choreography is tight and creative, where humour and the joy of music intervene judiciously to lessen the pain of resentment and the hurt of racism and homophobia.
Choir Boy comes from America but its message is universal. It reaches out to those who have suffered – or continue to suffer – because of their race or colour or gender or religion. And this production does so gently but with strength and compassion and Pride.
* Opening Night