Arts Festival

Sing a song of taboo in the showers


IN song and praise: David (Phumelelokuhle Ngidi), Pharus (Muneyi Romeo), Bobby (Gilvio Phiri) and AJ (Lulama Damba). Photograph courtesy UJ.

SEXUALITY, SONG AND the fear of losing what matters comes under the loupe in Choir Boy, a hard-hitting, yet simple play which is sensitively and relevantly translocated from an American context to a local one. Comprising a cast of four young men who articulate the groups and cliques, the safety nets and nuances of a whole high school for boys, the work is given structure by the teachers in the story, played by seasoned professionals: the principal, Mr Marrow (Lebohang Motaung) and a visiting academic, Dr Pendleton (Renos Spanoudes).

It blends beautifully harmonised voices, a stark and simple set which converts easily from imposing school windows to hostel beds and showers, and so strong an understanding of space and context that at times you will cast your memory, unintentionally back to your own high school days. This work resonates with the premises in pieces such as Aisling Walsh’s devastating Song for a Raggy Boy, but maintains a voice of its own, which is unequivocally local, dealing with youngsters’ financial issues, taboo and scholarship.

Choir Boy‘s narrative centres around the skill of the beautiful voice and competition behind leadership;  it may cause you to think back to François Girard’s 2014 film Boychoir, for this reason, but that’s where the similarity ends. This is about grown, sexually aware children and how high school is an incubator to very fragile tender dreams, which can be smashed by the values of others.

Spanoudes’s Pendleton – he calls himself “Mr P” to the boys so as not to cow them with his credentials – on the one hand recalls Mr Shorofsky in Alan Parker’s 1980 film Fame in his sense of physical vulnerability and comical presence. On the other hand, as the character develops, he becomes fierce in the name of anti-apartheid values and credentials, so much so, that his persona swoops into an enormity that hovers over the boys with steep and unrelenting conviction.

Choir Boy starts off a little hesitantly and woodenly; it may take you awhile to understand the pecking order and the dynamics between the teenagers. There’s a little over-acting and compliance with offensive stereotypes on the part of the young cast.  However, once the work gets into its mojo, it sings with strong values and a hairpin development in its plot that will leave you with what-ifs in your head – as the play Doubt: A Parable, directed in South Africa by James Cuningham in 2015, may have. But it’s not only intellectual/moral conundrums that you are presented with, here. The songs are performed with an integrity that is achingly beautiful. Even if you hate the story, you will go away with something in your heart and goosebumps on your skin.

  • Choir Boy was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Namatshego Khutsoane. Performed by Lulama Damba, Jack Mabokachaba, Lebohang Motaung, Phumelelokuhle Ngidi, Gilvio Phiri, Muneyi Romeo and Renos Spanoudes, it features design by Oliver Hauser (lighting) and performs at the Con Cowan Theatre, UJ Youth Arts Festival on September 5, and RedFest at Red Hill School, on September 29 and 30.

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