Actor and musician Zindzi Okenyo was asked once why there are so many new plays being written about identity.
“You look at those classic Western pieces and we don’t get those plays, so we almost have to start from the beginning,” says Okenyo, speaking backstage at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, where she is co-directing the Australian premiere of Tony-award winning play Choir Boy.
Zindzi Okenyo: “In general, a lot of the LGQBTI sphere is very white-centric.”Credit:Kate Geraghty
“I first read Choir Boy when a friend sent it to me in 2019 and remember thinking ‘I don’t know whether we could put this on’. But so much has changed over the last few years. There is a movement now.”
Choir Boy is written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose semi-autobiographical script was the basis for the much-lauded 2017 film Moonlight.
It tells the story of Pharus Young, a gay senior who is determined to become the best choir leader at a prep school for African-American boys. The cast comprises a mix of seasoned and debut actors including Darron Hayes, Gareth Dutlow, Abu Kebe and Tawanda Muzenda. Every performer identifies as either queer or as an artist of colour.
“In general, a lot of the LGQBTI sphere is very white-centric,” says Okenyo, who was approached to work on Choir Boy by co-director Dino Dimitriadis. “[In theatre] I often don’t see myself as a black, queer woman. When we went out with the casting brief, we said ‘male-identifying’ performers. It speaks to the way that gender expression is changing. It’s really important in my work to be specific.”
Okenyo outside the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta.Credit:Kate Geraghty
Moonlight won an Academy Award for it bruising portrayal of a young, black man from a Miami housing project struggling to articulate his queerness. Choir Boy, says Okenyo, who is Kenyan-Australian, maps the intersection of race, gender and sexuality.
“There is so much there about masculinity, what it is, how it is perceived socially,” she says. “I think Pharus expresses that it can be a multitude of things – its softness, its vulnerability, its heart.”
In Choir Boy, music, directed by the Haitian-American composer Allen René Louis, helps the characters embrace their complexity.
“Music becomes a communal safe space from bullying,” she says. “The performers have extraordinary voices. Dino and I were watching the tapes and crying.”
The play’s songs – from gospel hymns and spirituals to a cappella – speak to a higher power.
“I think there is something about hearing voices without accompaniment that is really special,” says Okenyo, a long-time Play School presenter who, next year, will release a new album by her children’s act Zindzi and the Zillionaires. “The play is so full of faith and I think that aspect will connect with a lot of people. I am excited for people to come and be surprised by how the music works.
“Choir Boy is a lovely piece. There is turmoil. There are real-life issues to wrestle with. It is really about finding yourself and that being a joyful thing.”
Choir Boy, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, from February 18
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