Friday, March 31, 2023



Directed by Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo

Musical Direction by Allen Rene Louis.

Choreographed by Tarik Frimpong – Costume design by Rita Naidu

Lighting design by Karen Norris – Sound design by Brendon Boney

Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse. March 29 – April 2 2023

Opening night performance on March 29 reviewed by BILL STEPHENS

Darron Hayes (Pharus Young) (c) and the cast of  "Choir Boy"

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Choir Boy” premiered in London in 2012, before touring throughout America prior to a successful Broadway season in 2019, when it received several Tony Award nominations.

This first Australian production by Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta premiered in the Riverside Theatre in February to co-incide with the Sydney world pride celebrations in Sydney, prior to touring to Brisbane, Wollongong and Canberra.

A coming-of-age story the play focusses on a talented young person of colour who fights for acceptance on his own terms. The play touches on matters of race, sexuality, and racial history, and, except for one role, is performed by an all-black cast.

Certainly one of the main attractions of the play was the opportunity it offered to hear a series of superbly sung gospel songs which are sprinkled throughout the text.

Darron Hayes as Pharus in "Choir Boy".

Set in the fictitious (presumably all-black) Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, sweet-voiced Pharus  is determined to be the best choir leader in the school’s 50-year history. His ambitions are thwarted and challenged by one of his peers, the headmaster’s nephew, Bobby (Zarif), who attempts to sabotage him, both in performance and in class, by taunting him with snide sexist slurs.

While still coming to terms with aspects of his sexuality, Pharus is proud of his queerness, and questions the headmaster’s reluctance to allow Bobby’s remarks to go unchecked

Robert Harrell (Headmaster Marrow) - Darron Hayes (Pharus)

His opportunity to fight this battle comes with Headmaster’s decision to employ a retired teacher, Mr Pendleton (Tony Sheldon) who encourages his students to broaden their thinking. This leads to a bitter confrontation between Pharus and Bobby during which Pharus launches into a long monologue to argue a thesis about Gospel songs being used as “code” by negro slaves.

Much of this monologue, and indeed others that followed, was largely unintelligible to the untuned ear due to the various accents of the actors, and the heightened style of acting which featured a great deal of explosive reactions, shouting and gesticulating. 

Darron Hayes is magnetic in the central role of Pharus Young, a role he’s performed previously in America. An animated actor with an angelic singing voice, his performance is both passionate and moving. Hayes is given strong support by the rest of the cast which includes  Zarif, who plays the Bobby, Theo Williams as the quiet giant, David, and Quinton Rofail Rich as AJ., Gareth Outlow as Junior, and Tawanda Muzenda.  

Robert Harrell brought a quiet dignity to the role of Headmaster Marrow, while Australian theatre legend, Tony Sheldon, the only white actor in the cast, delighted with his marvellously idiosyncratic cameo as Mr. Pendleton.

Tony Sheldon as Mr. Pendleton

Despite an unexplained 20 minute delay in commencing the performance on opening night, which must have been as unsettling for the actors as it was for the audience, this tightly directed production of “Choir Boy”, was particularly notable for its superb ensemble singing and inventive, well-drilled choreography. It received an enthusiastic reception from the appreciative first night audience.

                                                           Images: Phil Erbacher

    This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.