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Choir Boy follows a group of students attending a prestigious Christian school committed to building 'strong, ethical Black men.'DAHLIA KATZ/Canadian Stage

  • Title: Choir Boy
  • Written by: Tarell Alvin McCraney
  • Director: Mike Payette
  • Actors: Andrew Broderick, Scott Bellis, Daren A. Herbert, Clarence ‘CJ’ Jura, Kwaku Okyere, David Andrew Reid, Savion Roach
  • Company: Canadian Stage and Arts Club Theatre Company (Vancouver)
  • Venue: Bluma Appel Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Run: To Nov. 19

Is it possible to honour convention and tradition while still being true to who you are, even when those very conventions challenge the validity of your identity?

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy says yes, but it won’t be easy.

The play, which I saw in its final preview performance, follows a group of students attending Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a prestigious Christian school committed to building “strong, ethical Black men.”

The story’s main character, Pharus (Andrew Broderick), is the proud, talented leader of the school’s legendary gospel choir, and he is also struggling to come to terms with his identity as a young gay man in an environment that often reinforces ideas of homophobia and toxic masculinity.

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Savion Roach and Andrew Broderick in Choir Boy.DAHLIA KATZ/Canadian Stage

Filled with beautifully sung a cappella hymns, the play highlights the pressures young Black men face as well as the complexities that come with living in intersecting marginalized identities.

McCraney is known for his Academy Award-winning 2016 movie Moonlight – a film that explores similar themes of masculinity and queerness. Choir Boy originally premiered at the Royal Court in London in 2012, and it had a run on Broadway in 2018. More recently, McCraney revisited the play and rewrote parts of it to bring it into the current day.

Broderick gives a layered and powerful performance as Pharus, who wants nothing more than to be awarded the honour of singing the solo at the school commencement for the second year in a row. In most moments he is sassy, whip-smart and hilarious. But Broderick also effectively communicates that Pharus uses humour as a protection, and that under each saucy comment is a vulnerable, wounded human who longs to be accepted.

While Pharus’s environment subtly tells him to tone down his queerness, his classmate Bobby (Kwaku Okyere) does so without mincing words. Okyere’s complex performance suggests he acts out in this way at least in part because he too is facing insurmountable pressure to be good enough. His sidekick Junior is played by Clarence ‘CJ’ Jura, who has one of the smallest roles but one of the most sweet-sounding singing voices.

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Kwaku Okyere.DAHLIA KATZ/Canadian Stage

Pharus’s roommate and seemingly only friend Anthony – a gentle and kind-hearted jock – is played by Savion Roach. He gives a heartfelt, tender performance coupled with impressive vocals. The final member of the choir is David (David Andrew Reid), who longs to keep his head down, hold on to his scholarship, make his strict parents proud and become a pastor. But this proves challenging when the audience learns that he too is grappling with the discrepancy between who he believes he should be and who he really is.

The school’s headmaster is duty-bound and stern, yet Daren A. Herbert infuses the character with a fatherly quality that suggests he cares deeply about his students. Headmaster Marrow brings in Mr. Pendeleton (Scott Bellis), the play’s only white character, to teach a special class to the choir. Though he initially comes off as tone-deaf and dated, Bellis’s Mr. P reveals himself to be a tolerant, accepting educator who has spent his life fighting for civil rights.

Music is the great unifier in this play. No matter the conflicts that transpire, no matter how hostile the conversations, the spirituals bring them together, seemingly healing their fractures, if only for a moment. The crisp, pitch-perfect harmonies are pleasing, and the actors sing with such feeling that it allows the audience to experience something spiritual and divine. It is like being inside a house of worship.

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David Andrew Reid.Lorne Bridgman/Supplied

Though the play isn’t about racism, the lyrics of the spirituals serve as a reminder of all that Black people in North America have endured, how they’ve had to fight for their freedom. The words underscore how that struggle continues in a society that was built on their backs and still functions to systemically keep them down – a powerful, message that builds throughout the play.

The set design is impressive and surprising. In a particularly moving scene, the stage transforms from the classroom to the showers, and the characters literally bathe under steaming hot water. It is a moment of intense vulnerability, especially for Bobby the bully, whose tough exterior is stripped away as he sings in the shower – at first alone, and then alongside his classmates.

Another shower scene serves as a stark reminder that internalized homophobia so often leads to violence where there should be tenderness and intimacy.

Each young man in this story is in search of the same thing: acceptance – from their parents, from their educators and from their peers. They long to do as they are told, to make their elders proud, and yet they must contend with the ways in which doing so asks them to deny their authenticity. The play makes it clear that when such acceptance is withheld, it can lead a young person to engage in self-destructive behaviour. But when it is given, it can act as a powerful catalyst to their self-realization.

Ultimately, it is the healing power of music that allows Bobby to truly empathize with Pharus for the first time, to see their shared humanity. It is also music that allows Pharus to connect with his history and to honour the traditions of his people without sacrificing his true self. In Choir Boy, McCraney shows us how the arts can strengthen our sense of self and unite us, not just in spite of our differences but in celebration of them, if we only let them.

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