Monday, April 3, 2023

Choir Boy



Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney.  Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta at Canberra Theatre Centre, March 29 – April 2, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 1

Directed by Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo
Musical Director: Allen René Louis
Executive Producer: Joanne Kee; Co-Executive Producer: Craig McMaster
Producer: Daniel Cottier
Set realisation: PaperJam Productions
Costume Designer: Rita Naidu
Lighting Designer: Karen Norris; Sound Designer: Brendon Boney
Choreographer: Tarik Frimpong

Associate Musical Director Zara Stanton; Dialect Coach Angela Sullen
Intimacy Director Cessalee Stovall; Casting Director Rhys Velasquez
Creative Futures: Assistant Director Masego Pitso
Stage Manager Adrienne Patterson; Company Manager Jen Jackson
Assistant Stage Manager Alice Cavanagh
Production Manager Daniel Potter; Production Associate Hannah Crane
Lighting Realisation (tour): Sammy Reid
Social and Community Engagement  AJ Lamarque and Arran Munro

Darron Hayes
Gareth (Gaz) Dutlow
Robert Harrell
Abu Kebe
Tawanda Muzenda
Quinton Rofail Rich
Tony Sheldon
Theo Williams

I think that I have never seen a play as intimate as Choir Boy has been – for me, at any rate.

Tarell Alvin McCraney is an American playwright, screenwriter, and actor. He is the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama and a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble. He co-wrote the 2016 film Moonlight, based on his own play, for which he received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. [Wikipedia]

In his program note he writes: In 2007, I began writing Choir Boy. I completed a degree that year and believed I would never be in a formal school setting as a student again. My education about the world, its joy and cruelty, were far from over, but I was reflecting a great deal about the education system in my home country, state, city, and even neighborhood. What were the pieces of history, the modes of story telling, and the unspeakable and yet powerfully legible lessons, passed on to me in that 20-year period?

What was I to do it with it?

The history and modes of story-telling at my all boys’ English grammar school  were entirely different from that of his American all boys’ high school.  We sang Anglican hymns each Monday morning in an otherwise secular Enlightenment setting; his Afro-American choir boys sang spirituals in an intensely religious setting encapsulated in the words ‘trust and obey’ – which did not only apply to Jesus.

It was the Spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long ways from home which connected with me, having never forgotten the rendition by Odetta in her 1960 Odetta at Carnegie Hall album.  By then I was well-settled in Australia, but the feeling was there even as I was completing my degree just like Tarell McCraney in 2007.

I need to say at this point, as a matter of simple fact with no moral judgement, that I was never attracted to another boy as happens in Chorus Boy, though I was ‘unmanly’ and known as 'Muscles' because I didn’t have any.  In this play McCraney opens up the boys’ confusions about their relationships, about being a ‘true man’, mixed in with their need for mothers and security, as well as the history of their forebears’ slavery – which I had come to understand from Odetta’s singing the song which played a powerful role in the movement for racial equality in USA.

Disturbingly, I note that the Pew Research centre reported in 2019 that More than four-in-ten Americans say the country still has work to do to give black people equal rights with whites. Blacks, in particular, are skeptical that black people will ever have equal rights in this country.

The story-telling in Choir Boys is superbly done.  Though as Tarell did, Pharus does succeed in graduating, there is a sense of foreboding as the play ends.  But surely we can hope that we will Vote Yes for our First Nations to at least have a Voice in our Constitution.  Choir Boys raises this sort of question and exposes hypocrisy in education and politics.

In other words this is a play for which the National Theatre of Parramatta, a city central to Australia’s multicultural way of life, must be congratulated.  The design, directing, singing and choreography are inspiring to watch, to respond to with humour and depth of feeling, and to think about on reflection.

This is the answer to the author’s question, What was I to do with it?  Riverside’s National Theatre has done it absolute justice.

© Frank McKone, Canberra