by Lynn on November 16, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont. A Canadian Stage & Arts Club Theatre Company (Vancouver) Production. Plays until Nov. 19, 2022.

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Directed by Mike Payette

Composer/Arranger & Co-Musical Director, Floydd Ricketts

Co-Musical Director, Dawn Pemberton

Set and Costume Designer, Rachel Forbes

Lighting Designer, Sophie Tand

Sound Designer, Kate DeLorme

Cast: Scott Bellis

Andrew Broderick

Daren A. Herbert

Clarence ‘C.J’ Jura

Kwaku Okyere

David Andrew Reid

Savion Roach

A stylish, beautifully sung and acted production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s provocative play about identity both to the world and secreted.

The Story. Pharus Jonathan Young is in his teens and “an effeminate young man of colour” as described by playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney in the playtext. Pharus begins the play as a junior at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a private school for Black students. He is the lead of the school’s famous a cappella choir. He knows what an honour it is to sing the school song at the graduation ceremonies. He is the best singer in the choir and is picked to sing the song and he takes this responsibility very seriously. But something happens while he is performing and Pharus stops for a few seconds, much to the irritation of Headmaster Marrow. Marrow said to him that at all cost he was not to stop singing, but Pharus did. Now Marrow is being criticized and pressured by his board of directors to expel Pharus, who is there on a scholarship and needs that funding to remain in school.

Pharus tries to live up to the philosophy of the school, which means no lying, no snitching. When he’s called into Headmaster Marrow’s office Pharus just says he got distracted by something someone said. Pharus does not tell by whom. Marrow seems to figure it out but by then it’s the end of the year and nothing can be done then.

Marrow figures that the culprit is Bobby, his nephew—this makes matters sticky. Bobby is arrogant, pompous and a bully. He believes his preferred position—his uncle is the Headmaster and his father is a powerful presence on the board and in the school—gives him an edge and allows him to say things that are despicable. It was Bobby who flung homosexual slurs at Pharus during his singing. Pharus wouldn’t snitch on him.   

The following year, Pharus is the choir leader and Bobby is a member until he is so disruptive that Pharus rightfully removes Bobby from the choir. The internal politics of the school, the various personalities on the choir and Headmaster Marrow all swirl together. This is Headmaster Marrow’s second year of tenure and he’s on fragile ground. He must fundraise, keep a grip on his student body and placate a prickly board.

Also in the choir are: Junior Davis a great friend of Bobby’s, Anthony Justin (AJ) James, an athlete on various teams at the school and Pharus’ roommate, and David Heard, pious, quiet and wants to go into the ministry.

Different personalities and all of them hold secrets they might not want anyone to know. There is another character, Mr. Pendleton who is white and at one time a professor there now retired who has been asked by Marrow to teach a course to the choir about how to think. It’s believed that if he can shift around how these young men think, they would be prepared for early acceptance into college, college life and study. And of course, the wider world.

The Production. The production directed by Mike Payette is stylish, crisp and graceful. The set by Rachel Forbes is on two levels. Two winding staircases, stage left and stage right go up to a library level. Centre stage is a stained-glass structure that can be an office, a chapel, etc. Beds are easily pushed on and off suggesting Pharus’ (Andrew Broderick) and AJ’s (Savion Roach) room.

Rachel Forbes also designed the costumes. The students wear light blue suits, white shirts and a blue and yellow striped ties. Pharus is always beautifully turned out—shirt tucked in, jacket mostly buttoned up. He is always aware that he is a representative of that school and lives up to that responsibility.

Both Floydd Ricketts and Dawn Pemberton are co-musical directors and the results are exquisite for the singing of this a cappella choir. Harmonies are blended, no voice is louder than another, no voice stands out unless it’s a solo. Every singer shines with Andrew Broderick leading the way. He sings beautifully and conveys all of Pharus’ pride and confidence in what he does. Pharus knows that there are those in the school who want to ‘straighten him out’ because he’s effeminate but he remains true to himself and who he is.

What he has is a quick, nimble mind, a fantastic facility with vocabulary and a wit that is razor sharp. Andrew Broderick never misses a beat. He listens keenly and replies with a clear truth.

Lesser brains like Bobby (Kwaku Okyere) are constantly frustrated by the likes of Pharus because Pharus got where he is by hard work and brains. Bobby will get a head because of nepotism and money, but it will be Pharus who will make a difference in everything. Kwaku Okyere as Bobby has a swagger that takes over the room. He is hot-headed and impatient. Bobby does not pause to think, he just reacts. It’s a fine performance of Kwaku Okyere and he sings beautifully too.

Headmaster Marrow is played with every increasing frustration by Daren A. Herbert. This is a fine actor but I think he could incorporate more variation in his frustration—it often seems like an unnuanced rant of a performance and there is more to Headmaster Marrow than that.

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has certainly shown us the unequal world of these Black young men but from a Black perspective. There are bullies like Bobby with family ties that promote him, but he’s a moral bankrupt, just like in a white context. What is also interesting is how homosexuality is handled from a Black perspective. There is almost a revulsion of it from the various student’s comments. One can have ones reputation sullied just by whom you associate with.

There is a possible homosexual incident at the school and it’s Mr. Pendleton who has to point out to Headmaster Marrow that it has to be expected from an all-boys school that is nearly 50 years old. Marrow was stunned to hear that. It never occurred to him that any of the boys, besides Pharus, would be gay. Is this possible for a Headmaster not to even have an inkling?

I love the bracing language of Choir Boyand how Pharus negotiates this difficult world. He’s gay, Black and smart. Every moment for him is proving himself worthy to people who think he is less because of the way he talks, moves and because of his stunning intellect.

I loved the humanity of Choir Boy—characters looked out for each other.

Pharus had champions such as the Headmaster and other members of the choir. AJ as beautifully played by Savion Roach is kind, compassionate, understanding. And he knows what a good friend Pharus has been to him, without bragging about it.   Pharus has a loving mother—obviously a single parent who is proud of him.

I do have a concern about one scene. Initially Mr. Pendleton (a lovely performance of understanding and perception by Scott Bellis) arrives for his first class and he’s late.

Tarell Alvin McCraney has him make some off-handed racist remark: “See it’s not just black people who are late.” And then Mr. Pendleton explains that comment was a joke. I don’t believe that that character as written would say that kind of racist remark because later he rails at Bobby for always using the ‘N’ word to casually refer to others. Mr. Pendleton is so passionately against the word saying that he “lost enough friends behind that word” that even having him joke before with a racist remark doesn’t ring true. We learn that Pendleton had marched and protested with Martin Luther King against racism. So, because of that I believe that the joke is a cheap shot that sounds false with everything else written about and said by Mr. Pendleton.

Still the play leaves everybody with a lot to think about, while they are reveling in the glorious music.

Comment. Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney, premiered at the Royal Court in London, England in 2012. He wrote the screenplay of Moonlight (2016) and won an Academy Award. He’s a wonderful, sensitive, smart writer. Love his work.

A Canadian Stage & Arts Club Theatre Company (Vancouver) Co-Production.

Runs until: Nov. 19, 2022.

Running Time: 100 minutes, one intermission.

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