RTP’s ‘Choir Boy’ highlights intersectionality set to a powerful Gospel groove
“You can sing a song, but once you add soul, your soul, your emotions, your passions to it, that’s when it’s gospel.”
Those are the words of Vegas Krane, a cast member in Richmond Triangle Players upcoming presentation of Choir Boy, a story of growing up, struggling with identity, and reconciling differences all set to the music of gospel.
Choir Boy is a coming-of-age story that follows a group of young, Black students at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys as they struggle with coming to terms with who they are. Pharus is the central character; bright-eyed, smart, and passionate. His pride in singing the school anthem at the graduation ceremony is ruined when one of the students in the audience flings a homophobic slur.
Conflict arises as Pharus refuses to divulge the name of the boy who taunted him, maintaining that this would be a breach of the school’s honor code. Even under the threat of expulsion, Pharus insists on behaving as the principles of his school dictates.
Jamar Jones, who plays the central character Pharus Jonathan Young, has been a regular in the Richmond Theatre scene, previously performing with Firehouse Theatre. He explained that Pharus’ story is a universal one.
“We just want to be embraced and loved for who we are,” he said, speaking to Pharus’ struggle for acceptance. “It’s about looking in a mirror and saying, “Okay, this is me. This is what I’m working with. I like it. World, you’re gonna like it too.”
Another veteran of the Richmond scene, Jay Banks, who plays Junior, not only respected the quality of the production, but the rare opportunity being part of the cast presented.
“In Richmond, this is a great opportunity. There’s a lot of great work showcasing so much diversity in this city,” he said. “But, it’s not very often, even in a city that’s as accepting and diverse as Richmond, where you have a show that’s a mostly Black cast that’s also directed by a Black director that’s also written by a gay Black playwright where the cast is sexually diverse. I think that’s been such a unique opportunity.”
The director of Choir Boy is Margarette Joyner, artistic director of The Heritage Ensemble Theater Company. The Company aims to showcase the talent of African-American actors, who often have to compete for a limited number of roles. Choir Boy, which opened in New York City’s Manhattan Theatre Club, received critical acclaim for its soul-stopping music and its honest portrait of young Black men struggling to find themselves.
“It’s about being different, and all that comes with that,” she said. “This is an acceptance piece.”
Joyner admitted that she’s never seen Choir Boy performed before, but explained that this allows her to take the play and transform it into her own vision, without worrying about how it compares to previous adaptations.
“I don’t want to imitate or copy anything,” she said. “I have to have my vision of it.”
Elijah Jefferson, who plays David, has seen how everyone has come together under Joyner’s leadership.
“It’s very important to really be in the flow with your director, because not only is it her adaption, it’s ours too,” he said. “So we don’t get the feeling that it’s her play. It’s ours as well.”
Choir Boy isn’t just a story about gayness or Blackness, but rather how these identities intersect and what that inevitably means. The intersectionality of the play is what excites Keaton Hillman, who plays Anthony Justice “AJ” James, Pharus’ roommate and best friend who stands by him as he is shunned by his peers.
“We talk about these issues separately,” he said, referring to issues such as sexism, racism, and homophobia. “Choir Boy takes all these things and it puts them all together into one message. Ultimately, the message is empathy.”
Gospel music is the heart of Choir Boy, reaffirming the value of tradition and the beauty of singing in harmony, how different voices come together into one chorus. According to Akiel Baldwin, a Richmond theater newcomer who plays Bobby Marrow, gospel takes the story of the play and brings it to life.
“Gospel has so much weight to it, because there’s so much truth and pain inside the lyrics,” he said.
While they practice, the cast stands in a circle in a shadowed theater. Their voices are raised upwards, and they can’t seem to help tapping their toes and snapping their fingers. Their voices meld together in perfect harmony, five different voices coming together to sing one song.
“Gospel and spirituals has always been the musical language of oppressed Black people in America,” said Banks. “Whether it’s racial oppression or oppression based on your sexual orientation, it’s necessary that we use this language that’s been the musical language of our people to tell the story of someone who’s oppressed at this intersection that we don’t normally see.”
As for the audience, the cast and crew want people to leave the theatre with its gospel still singing in their heart.
“People tend to marginalize those that they don’t understand,” said Banks. “Hopefully, someone who’ll see this show and be like ‘maybe we’re not as divided as we thought we were.’”
With the current political climate, Jones believes that this show is more necessary than ever.
“It’s right on time,” he said.
“Right now, there’s just dialogue waiting to be had,” Jefferson agreed. “And, Choir Boy will open the door.”
“This is a voice for those who are underrepresented,” said Krane. “For those that don’t exist in this person’s normal world. Our response to all those people is you need to hear our message”
Choir Boy will be performed at Richmond Triangle Players’ theater at 1300 Altamont Avenue and will run February 22nd through March 18th. Reserved seat tickets ($30 for Fridays and Saturdays evenings at 8:00 pm, $28 for Thursday evenings at 8:00 pm and Sunday matinees at 4:00 pm, with discounts for groups and students) can be purchased online at RTP’s web site at www.rtriangle.org, on RTP’s facebook page, or by leaving a message on the RTP Ticket Hotline at 804-346-8113.
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