28 March 2023

Powerful acting combines with soulful gospel hymns in Choir Boy

| Emma Batchelor
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group of people singing in suits on stage

Choir Boy is coming to Canberra on 29 March. Photo: Phil Erbacher.

Fresh from its Australian premiere at Sydney WorldPride comes Choir Boy, an achingly beautiful piece of theatre from the Academy Award-winning writer of Moonlight, Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Combining powerful acting with soulful gospel hymns, Choir Boy meditates on sexuality, race and friendship within the story of a young gay man finding his voice.

“The work is a dance between the traditional world of theatre and the beautiful world of a cappella singing,” co-director Dino Dimitriadis (they/them) shares. “It’s a play with songs which is really special.”

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Unlike a traditional musical where songs are often used to drive plot, the gospels performed in Choir Boy serve a more subtle, character-driven purpose.

Dimitriadis says playwright McCraney draws a story of identity, using the songs to take us into the inner lives of the characters.

“The songs are really there to amplify the scene work,” he says.

“The cast, who are beautifully versatile, are wonderful actors and also wonderful singers.”

Australian audiences are perhaps not used to hearing gospels and spirituals as part of live theatre, something the creative team behind this local production considered when developing the work.

Choir Boy on stage

The questions of identity and finding your voice are still at the heart of the play. Photo: Phil Erbacher.

“While gospel isn’t a style of music we often see here and Choir Boy is an American play, what has been astonishing and really affirming for us, is that people seem to understand this as a timely story for Australian audiences.

“I think sometimes the more specific you are, the more universal you are.

“This work is set in a specific place and in a particular context but because of that specificity you are able to really get into what the characters are experiencing. Through that the story becomes quite universal.”

That specific location is the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys and the context is the present day. While Choir Boy originally premiered in 2012 at the Royal Court in London with a run on Broadway in 2018, McCraney more recently revised the play to re-centre it in the current moment.

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What has stayed the same are the questions at the heart of the play.

“They are to do with identity and finding your voice,” agrees Dimitriadis. “We are living in such a complicated world and in such complicated times and I think everyone is wrestling with this question of how we retain an authentic self within all that complication.

“It has been extraordinary to see audiences responding to what is essentially a story about owning your truth and owning your distinct presence in the world. I think anyone who walks into the theatre can relate to that.”

Despite queer stories having increasing visibility, Dimitriadis says there are still experiences under-represented on stage. In examining the intersections of race, sexuality and faith, Choir Boy goes some way to bridging that gap.

Choir Boy image

The team wanted to create something not often seen in Australia. Image: Canberra Theatre Centre.

“Intersectionality is something we need to be exploring with more muscularity and rigour on stage,” he says. “That is why it has been so great to have Zindzi Okenyo co-directing.

“We are both queer people and we both have a commitment to rigour and care in our practices. But we have different lived experiences which have resonated into the work.”

Even when watching a recording of the rehearsal, it’s easy to see how the care shown by the co-directors has translated into the actors’ performances.

“Everybody across the team, from musical direction to choreography to other creatives, have really played their part and believed in the vision for this work,” Dimitriadis says.

“We wanted to create something we don’t often see in Australia … and to do that with incredible authenticity and heart.”

Choir Boy
Canberra Theatre Centre
29 March to 2 April 2023
Buy tickets

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