Review: Choir Boy (National Theatre of Parramatta)


Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Feb 14 – Mar 11, 2023 | Wollongong Town Hall (Wollongong NSW), Mar 22 – 25, 2023
Playwright: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Director: Dino Dimitriadis, Zindzi Okenyo
Cast: Gareth Dutlow, Robert Harrell, Darron Hayes, Abu Kebe, Tawanda Muzenda, Quinton Rofail Rich, Tony Sheldon, Theo Williams, Zarif
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Pharus is leader of the choir, at his prestigious all-boys American prep school. Being naturally swishy and flamboyant, he draws the ire of other students, most noticeably Bobby who takes great joy in inflicting homophobic taunts, as many bullies have done at schools everywhere and in every generation. Fortunately, Bobby has protectors in his roommate AJ and his teacher Mr Pendleton, but even with allies on his side, there is no evading the aggression directed at him, so persistently and maliciously.

Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney is a keenly observed story on young queer Blackness, exploring the nature of conflicts that arise, when camaraderie meets hostility. Those who live at the intersections of marginalisation, often suffer multi-pronged persecution, as well as a complicated form of mistreatment, from those with whom one is meant to share parallel experiences of oppression. Pharus should be able to rely on a comradeship with the other Black boys at school, but instead of thriving in safety, he is required to be in a stated of constant vigilance.

Directed by Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo, Choir Boy is a poignant work of theatre, that demonstrates not only the vulnerability of young Black lives, but that also celebrates their joy and power, in colonised spaces built to undermine them. The characteristically resilient spirit of being both Black and queer, is a conspicuous feature of the production, alongside a unique sense of pride that emerges from inhabiting those dual identities. Musical direction by Allen René Louis in this “play with music” delivers an extraordinary sense of transcendence, in song sequences that highlight African-American traditions of performance, on Australian stages that are perhaps much too habituated to colourless manifestations. Energetic choreography by Tarik Frimpong too, draws meaningful attention to Black bodies, in important ways that supplement dialogue and lyrics.

It may be that the most enjoyable aspect of the production, is the exquisite singing by its young cast, but moving performances provide a gravity that delivers more than entertainment. As Pharus, Darron Hayes is charming and authentic from the very start, winning our hearts effortlessly, and keeping us firmly on his side for the entire journey. In the role of AJ is Quinton Rofail Rich, deeply convincing as the loving and supportive ally, beautiful in his exemplification of positive masculinity. Mr Pendleton is played by the captivating Tony Sheldon, whose intensity in a crucial moment of upheaval, could bring tears to the most hardened of hearts. The antagonist Bobby is given valuable dimensionality by Zarif, whose depiction of his part’s unexpected sympathetic side, makes for a more believable villain.

The sentimentality of Choir Boy is enhanced by the immense sensitivity of Karren Norris’ lighting design, that seeks to further engage our emotions. Brendon Boney’s sounds are restrained but effective in creating dramatic shifts in atmosphere. Costumes by Rita Naidu portray character types with accuracy, and adept at instilling a sense of body positivity for scenes involving states of undress.

People who experience marginalisation, should understand what it is like for other people who experience different forms of persecution, yet it is commonplace to discover people of colour living in the West, unable to embrace queer members of their own communities. There is a sense that the struggle to survive, encourages people to only champion individual interests, and in the process impose onto others, the same prejudice that they wish to interrogate. When we are divided, we are doing the coloniser’s work on their behalf, for it is separation and subjugation, that will forever be fundamental to their project. |