SCRUTINY | Canadian Stage’s Superbly Casted Choir Boy Pops Off The Stage

By Paula Citron on November 15, 2022

The cast of Choir Boy (Photo courtesy of Canadian Stage)
The cast of Choir Boy (Photo courtesy of Canadian Stage)

Canadian Stage & Arts Club Theatre Company (Vancouver)/Choir Boy, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Mike Payette, co-musical direction by Dawn Pemberton and Floydd Ricketts, Bluma Appel Theatre, Nov. 8 to 19. Tickets available here.

Imagine this casting dilemma for Choir Boy.

First of all, you need five Black singing/actors, with an emphasis on both skills. However, because they are supposed to be an a cappella choir, you have to make sure you have tenors, baritones and basses in the mix. And, oh yes, they have to be able to pass for high school age.

Then, you have to ensure that you have personality types.

First you have Pharus (Andrew Broderick), an obviously gay boy on the effeminate side, and the choir’s lead singer. Then there’s the bully Bobby (Kwaku Okyere), his minion Junior (Clarence “CJ” Juro), the religious prude David (David Andrew Reid) and the sympathetic athlete AJ (Savion Roach), who is Pharus’ roommate.

There is also the Black Headmaster (Daren A. Herbert), who also has to sing, and the lone White man Mr. Pendleton (Scott Bellis), the only non-singer. To further complicate matters, the Headmaster is Bobby’s uncle. Mr. P. figures into the mix as the retired former headmaster and teacher at the school, who functions as the wise man on campus.

It’s a pleasure to report that the cast assembled for this production of Choir Boy is supremely talented, and collectively, they represent the Black diaspora in Canada with backgrounds from Britain, Africa, and the Caribbean.

This is director Mike Payette’s second go-round with the play, having first directed an acclaimed production for Montreal’s Centaur Theatre in 2018. He has opted for hyper-acting, as it were, but the poetic language leads to rich portrayals. Everything in this play cries for an over-the-top interpretation, and Payette has created a production that pops off the stage and slams right into the audience.

The scene is the fictional Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, and its famous gospel choir which was founded 50 years ago. In my research, I discovered some interesting facts. We generally associate prep/boarding schools with rich White teenagers, but Black prep schools were established to give worthy girls and boys a chance for a better education.

Before the 1970s, there were over 100 scattered across the United States. Many had scholarships to help academically talented but disadvantaged youth. As the Civil Rights Movement led to desegregation, however, the Black prep schools declined, and now, apparently, there are only four left.

Even though the school in the play is fictional, Charles R. Drew is not. He was an African American surgeon who conceived the idea of the blood bank during World War ll, and so he is known as “the father of the blood bank”. Why playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney chose to name his school after Drew is one of the mysteries of the play, although, as someone pointed out, the word “blood” is mentioned often.

The cast of Choir Boy (Photo courtesy of Canadian Stage)
The cast of Choir Boy (Photo courtesy of Canadian Stage)

Choir Boy premiered first at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2012, before coming to New York’s off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club in 2013. This is four years before McCraney won his Oscar for co-writing the 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight.

A major theme in Moonlight concerns a gay Black man who has to suppress his homosexuality in order to survive the mean streets, populated by Black, homophobic alpha males. The difference in Choir Boy is that the play’s central figure Pharus does not hide his gayness. He’s smart and sassy, and knows how to blackmail to get his way. He is also not above revenge.

The play is considered a coming of age vehicle. Obvious homosexuality, and the various attitudes towards it, is at the heart of Choir Boy. As the play progresses, we find out how people think about homosexuality by their treatment of Pharus.

Here is another mystery of Choir Boy: Why did McCraney call his lead character Pharus? The word describes a genus of grasses, but the more common thought is that Pharus is a riff on the Greek word “pharos” which means “lighthouse”.

There is glorious gospel music that is part of the scenes and the scene changes. The music, in fact, dominates the action, and huge kudos to co-directors Dawn Pemberton and Floydd Ricketts, the latter also acting as composer and arranger. A big nod to Natasha Powell, who is responsible for the synchronized choreography. The actors just don’t stand and sing. They move!

Rachel Forbes’ eye-catching set and costumes are wonderful. As the audience enters, we are treated to sweeping staircases and a stained glass window. The choir uniforms are dazzling, as is Sophie Tang’s lighting.

I did miss some Blackisms which convulsed the Black members of the audience in laughter, but that is okay. I’m not from that culture. On the other hand, this sterling production cuts across life, and contains universal themes that everyone can understand.

Choir Boy is not to be missed.

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Paula Citron
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