Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Dino
Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo
Theatre Of Parramatta production
Centre Playhouse to 2 April
Reviewed by Len Power
‘Choir Boy’ first opened in London’s Royal Court Theatre in
2012 and went on to have seasons in the USA and on Broadway. Set in the Charles R. Drew School For Boys,
young black and gay student, Pharus Young, is determined to be the best choir
leader in the history of the school.
Taunted by another of the all-black choir members with hurtful slurs about
his homosexuality, Pharus tries to conform to masculine expectations of the
school and his fellow students.
This story of a young gay man desperate to find his place in the world is punctuated with a capella gospel hymns of love and warmth that are in conflict with the young man’s struggle to be liked and accepted for himself. In this case, it’s his homosexuality that is a ‘problem’, but the fact there is conflict because he is perceived as ‘different’ by his fellow students is really the issue. How he feels about the way he is treated at an age where fitting in with his peers would be important to him, is at the centre of this play.
The headmaster, played by Robert Harrell, is bound by rules and regulations and proves to be not much help. An elderly white teacher, Mr. Pendleton, played by Tony Sheldon, employed to help with the boys’ critical thinking, ultimately admits defeat as well. A happy or tragic ending might have been expected but the play’s actual ending is more realistic.
A plus in this production is the gospel singing. Music director, Allen Reneé Louis and Associate Musical Director, Zara Stanton, have obtained fine vocal performances by the talented cast of young men.
The drama linking the songs seems not as compelling as the music, but that is not necessarily a problem. We do not learn much about the characters and the small scenes seem to be snapshots in time, rather than a story with continuity. A lot of the dialogue is hard to understand as the boys speak with an accent that is unfamiliar to our ears. We come to realize that the emotion of the scenes presented is more important here than story.
Darron Hayes as Pharus Young, the troubled gay young man, gives a strong, dramatic performance and sings gloriously. The rest of the cast of students are more notable for their fine singing than for the dramatic opportunities the play allows them. Tony Sheldon gives an excellent, believable performance as Mr. Pendleton, a white man who thinks that his way of teaching, effective in the past, will work just as well with this group. The moment where he realizes he is wrong is very moving.
The simple abstract setting by Paperjam productions evokes the atmosphere of an old school steeped in tradition and the directors, Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo, use the acting spaces and levels of the setting well. The emotional levels in the drama and singing have been carefully realized.
This is a play where feelings have the most importance. The emotion in the gospel singing and in the dramatic scenes, rather than their story content, carries the play forward. It does not meet the usual expectations of a play and may concern audience members who want more depth in the story. It requires that, more on an empathy level, you understand how being intolerant of a person simply because they are different can cause serious emotional damage.
Len Power's reviews
are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 in the ‘Arts Cafe’ and ‘Arts About’
programs and published in his blog 'Just Power Writing' at https://justpowerwriting.blogspot.com/