Canadian Stage presents a stylish, affecting production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy. Set in Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, an institution that prides itself on the cultivation of upstanding Black men; the story delves into the fraught, emotionally charged dynamic of the school’s gospel choir. As the members struggle with conflicting expressions of masculinity, a cappella hymns provide a stirring soundscape.
Early on, the choir’s leader, Pharus (Andrew Broderick), suddenly stops mid-performance and glares off to his side. A confrontation with the Headmaster Marrow (Daren A. Herbert) about this disgraceful disruption reveals the supremacy of tradition at the school. “Drew Boys” are held to a high standard, but the ideology lurking beneath is problematic. Even the slightest tainting of convention is more concerning to Marrow than the homophobic slur that caused it.
As a young gay man, Pharus is begrudgingly tolerated and a stifling contempt permeates the atmosphere around him. Broderick plays up the flamboyant sass as a performative shield, allowing Pharus to be as irritating as he is amusing. His provocative quirks incite the ire of his antagonist, Bobby (Kwaku Okyere), a young man with festering resentments. Their mutual hostility is compelling, a flame that draws the rest of the characters towards them.
Caught up in the tension are: the poised David (David Andrew Reid) on a deceptively straight and narrow path to becoming a preacher; and Junior (Clarence ‘CJ’ Jura), Bobby’s affable and scrappy side-kick.
Pharus’s relationship with his roommate Anthony (Savion Roach) is particularly special to me. Roach gives the most understated performance as his friend, straight yet comfortable enough in his own skin to allow for intense physical and emotional intimacy. Roach radiates genuine, unguarded tenderness. And the script establishes his deep investment in the friendship by having him be so proactively vulnerable, initiating uncomfortable conversations to foster mutual understanding.
After an incident has left Pharus bruised and shaken, Anthony trims his hair. It is a simple, practical gesture, but so generous and affectionate that my heart leapt. I feel somewhat self-conscious being so attentive to this particular aspect of the story, but it struck a deep chord in me.
Scott Bellis is very appealing as the slightly dotty Mr. Pendleton, an elderly professor enlisted as a peacemaker to the volatile group. His clumsy, very white attempts to engage with these boys highlights a gaping social and generational divide, but his authentic compassion and wisdom render any awkwardness more endearing than cringey.
A racialized history informs the current conflict. As these young men deconstruct the gospel songs they perform, unpacking their relationship to these Negro Spirituals, they expose the raw nerve of slavery and ancestral trauma. Pharus sparks a resonant debate about the purpose of these songs: Were they coded instructions for strategic escape or a collective effort to lift oppressed spirits?
McCraney fills the text with references to raised heads and voices—a lyrical celebration of uplift. Anthony’s poignant “don’t look down” speech is particularly resonant. In her design, Rachel Forbes reinforces this motif with a tiered set that suggests a religious and academic upward motion. A prominent stained glass window depicts a saintly human figure gazing up in awe at the majesty of a godly light.
Overall, Mike Payette’s production is fairly modest. He focuses our attention on solid, deliberately heightened performances and rapturous vocals. There is one exceptionally innovative and exhilarating bit of stagecraft: Forbes shower scene set-up. Real water spouts from descended shower heads onto bodies partially obscured by tile and translucent windows. Steam billowing up from below completes the sensual, transcendent spectacle.
Formally, Choir Boy isn’t quite a musical; but it has thrilling musicality. Though the songs don’t reveal character or progress the narrative, they are an integral part of these people—both a catalyst for conflict and a conduit for connection and healing.