CHOIR BOY by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Canadian Stage/Arts Club Theatre Company). Runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East) until November 19. $29-$109. canadianstage.com. Rating: NNN
Not all the elements work in perfect harmony in Canadian Stage and Arts Club Theatre’s co-production of Choir Boy. But Tarell Alvin McCraney’s coming-of-age story set in a respected prep school for young Black men still hits some powerful notes, especially in its stirring gospel music and impassioned performances.
Pharus (Andrew Broderick) is a fine student with a glorious voice who’s out, loud and proud – and he doesn’t care who knows it. During the school’s commencement ceremony, he stumbles and pauses during a solo because of some racist and homophobic language from a classmate. But when pressed by the school’s strict headmaster (Daren A. Herbert) about the reason, he honours the school’s code and refuses to reveal his taunter, even though everyone knows the troublemaker was Bobby (Kwaku Okyere), who just happens to be the headmaster’s fiery nephew.
Now it’s another year – the school’s 50th anniversary, in fact – and Pharus’s goal is to once again be the head of the choir to make some joyful noise come commencement. But that depends on whether he can survive bunking with his straight, jock roommate Anthony (Savion Roach) and avoid run-ins with Bobby and his monosyllabic sidekick Junior (Clarence ‘CJ’ Jura).
If you’re expecting the heightened, myth-laden language and bold structure of McCraney’s The Brothers Size, or the pared-down poetic beauty of Moonlight, which won the author an Oscar for adapting his own play, you might be disappointed. Choir Boy is an old-fashioned play; it could almost be a premise for a sitcom full of teachable moments.
The characters aren’t especially well-developed; besides those I’ve listed above, there is a character named David (David Andrew Reid) who wants to avoid trouble because he’s a scholarship student and wants to become a pastor. The addition, about a third of the way in, of an outsider figure mixes things up and helps put Pharus’s issues in a broader historical and social context.
Still, there are some powerful moments, such as when the students discuss the meaning and resonance of spirituals. And while Broderick is fun to watch in his finger-snapping moments – obviously a defensive front he puts up to protect himself – he delivers a moving and genuinely felt monologue near the end about avoiding barbershops, usually considered a warm and safe space for Black communities.
Unfortunately, director Mike Payette handles the scene transitions awkwardly, tasking the actors with manoeuvring beds, sofas, benches and even portable showers in Rachel Forbes’s set with little nuance or sensitivity. And the significance of the play’s final moment – a simple but powerful statement – doesn’t quite register the way it could. (I saw the play’s Broadway production in 2019 and that scene hit with much more force.)
The performers are fine actors and even better singers. Reid absolutely soars in his solos, and Okyere and Jura’s singing brings richness and depth to their characters not found in the script itself. Herbert brings dignity and grace to his conflicted headmaster. And Roach – who after Gloria and Is God Is proves he’s one of the most versatile young actors around – finds a soulful, empathetic take on a familiar archetype.
If the play occasionally loses some tension, not to worry. A beautifully harmonized a cappella gospel number will soon make you forget all about it.