A senior and head choir boy at a private school for African American adolescents, Pharus is ambitious and manifestly talented.
But in his quest to sing at the end-of-year commencement day, he’s subject to institutionalised restrictions and the homophobia of some of his peers.
Nevertheless, through song, he perceives a means to attain spiritual freedom, the same defiant yearning for flight that inspired his forebears and ancestors.
Beautifully directed by Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo, Choir Boy is dominated by the quality of the music – the gorgeous a cappella singing from a uniformly stunning cast. Audiophiles may quibble a bit with the Riverside speaker system (it doesn’t always feel like it does complete justice to the depth of sound), but the often breathtaking performances still summon the transcendence that Pharus identifies in spiritual music.
Alone, it’s justification for seeing this show – but that’s not to diminish the vivid characterisation that brings to life the drama, which meditates on the intersection of race and sexuality.
In the role of Pharus, Darron Hayes, is an effervescent, superbly engaging lead. He’s complemented by brilliant supporting players, such as Theo Williams as David, Abu Kebe as Junior and Quinton Rofail Rich as AJ, grounding their performances in sensitive nuance that can by turns express tensions of compassion and cruelty, self-expression and inarticulacy.
Meanwhile in the difficult role of the rich kid Bobby, one of Pharus’ tormentors, Zarif adds depth to the antagonist with surprising and poignant vulnerability.
Their stories reflect the complex negotiation of frustration, repression and joy that define an adolescence grappling with identity, weighted with the legacy of historical marginalisation(s).
In dwelling here, the script offers questions without providing easy conclusions.
It has none of the catharsis or triumphalism of what may be expected by a ‘typical’ musical (curiously suggested by the marketing material) – presenting the audience with a downbeat inconclusiveness to some of the plot strands. Moments of self-affirmation in speeches and dialogue, in particular, can seem as if they’ve come out of nowhere and don’t overtly inform the drama moving forward.
Meanwhile, this bleaker quality extends to the dour, minimalist (almost underwhelming) stage design.
All of this arguably reflects both the transience and messiness of adolescence itself – and the ordinary reality of profound issues that remain, of course, unresolved today.
In that sense, it may disappoint those looking for fully expressed narratives and neatly uplifting endings. But that’s part of the deal in engaging with Choir Boy – if we’re not easily assuaged by the power of music or friendship, we gain more understanding of how they inform the seemingly endless growing pains of our society.
Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Presented by Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta in association with Sydney WorldPride
Directed by Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo
Cast: Gareth Dutlow, Robert Harrell, Darron Hayes, Abu Kebe, Tawanda Muzenda, Quinton Rofail Rich, Tony Sheldon, Theo Williams, Zarif
Choir Boy will be performed until 11 March in Parramatta before touring to Wollongong Town Hall from 22-25 March 2023.