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Choir Boy is in association with Sydney WorldPride

Tawanda Muzenda, Quinton Rofail Rich, Theo Williams, Darron Hayes, Zarif, Abu Kebe and Gareth Dutlow performing in Choir Boy. Image. Phil Erbacher.

Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta (NTofP), in association with Sydney WorldPride, is currently hosting the Australian premiere of Choir Boy, by the Academy Award® winning writer of Moonlight, Tarell Alvin McCraney. We caught up with cast member Abu Kebe to chat about the production and the importance of sharing this story.

Choir Boy tells the story of Pharus Young, the lead of the choir at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. In his quest to become the best choir leader the school has ever seen, he and his fellow choir members must navigate the complex structures of sexuality and race, united by their passion for gospel music.

Starring a stellar cast featuring international musical theatre performer Darron Hayes (Denver Centre for Performing Arts’ Choir Boy), alongside Tony Sheldon (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), Robert Harrell (The Shield), Zarif (Lonesome), Quinton Rofail Rich (Godspell), Theo Williams (Passing Strange), Gareth Dutlow, Abu Kebe and Tawanda Muzenda (professional debuts). With direction by Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo, and musical direction by Allen René Louis (Broadway Inspirational Voices), Choir Boy will wrap its Sydney run in March, before continuing onto Brisbane, Canberra and Wollongong.

Read our interview with Abu Kebe below!

You're currently starring in National Theatre of Parramatta’s production of Choir Boy. Tell us a bit about the show...

So Choir Boy tells the story of these black kids that are going to an all black boy's private school and how they navigate their life, their experiences of coming into their sexuality and how they try to transcribe that with their family values, their religion and the constrictions of the culture and the rules around school. It centres around the character named Pharus (Darron Hayes) who is the lead of the choir and how they're trying to navigate that with all the problems, and all the issues that each and every one of the other characters that are in choir have as well. So it's practically just like the most direct form of coming of age story that the black community would have, as well it's so beautiful.

This is your professional debut as well, which is super exciting. What drew you not only to the play, but also the character that you are playing? And can you tell us a bit about your character Junior?

I'm playing the role of Junior, which is a very, very fun and effervescent role that is so, in a lot of ways it's similar to myself, but in a lot of ways it's so different to who I am. This character is just a bundle of joy to portray every single night. He has the most incredible transformation from the start of the play to the end. He just goes through so many bits and pieces of discoveries and finding new things that he likes or new things that he's discovering about himself, his sexuality, his personality, and his friendship with Bobby. For the entire play I have a really close friendship with this other character called Bobby, and we just have such a joyful time with each other. Even though we are the bullies of the play [laughs]. It's just such a really close friendship that [writer] Tarell [Alvin McCraney] has written so well, that the audience gets to see where these people are not attacking other people. They're just being human beings and just seeing them in the most vulnerable and the most realistic way that they can be, before you see all of the other things that they do when they're not just the two of them. So it's just so fantastic to get to play him every night. And he's iconic.

It sounds like such a fun role! The production is in association with Sydney World Pride 2023. And the play does delve into, like you said earlier, sexuality, race, gospel music whilst a young queer man is finding his voice. How did you find working with these quite powerful themes and topics?

I feel like it's being a rollercoaster in the best way possible to come into this room. First of all, to read the script and see a story of such truth and so much heart and spirit within the text, that actually tells a much more realistic queer story than what would be seen as a fantasy of what the ideal happy ending of a story might be. It is so real and so true to many of us in the cast. Each of these stories speak to us or we know people who these stories have spoken to, or people that have experienced so many of these things. So it's a lot of the times we come into the show and we have so much passion and so much respect for the work that we're putting out there, because we know as queer people ourselves or as people who are allies of queer people, we know the strength, the struggle, the truth, the resilience that comes from telling a story as important and as vital as this in this day and age. So it's just so it's so powerful to have those things of sexuality, religion, queerness, being put out in the forefront, especially in today's society as well. It's so good.

It's such a great message to share, and so important like you said. When it came to preparing for the show, what was kind of your process for getting into the role?

Ooh. I've had a massive, massive different... massive steps in time of how I'm gonna work this. So when I first got the role, I naturally read the script. I read the script to try and see what I can do because I am in my third year of uni now, so I'm still a student. So I literally reached out to my acting teachers as well. And I am like, these are ideas that I have of how I can portray this character because physically the character is very different to mine and to my personality and how I carry myself. So I did a lot of animal work, which is such a drama school random thing to do [laughs]. So I did a lot of animal work and a lot of different character centres in portraying my character in the show. Every night I would probably just lay on the floor to, just get the coldness of the floor and feel a different sense of spirit run through my body in order to create my character center of where I would have him like... He starts the play being such a massive air of joy. So he's beaming. He's just glowing with excitement. I even channeled the lights on stage, to get the heat of how I can portray the joy that my character has. When I go through all of that journey, I've used so many different things to prepare for this, but when he goes through his journey and drops into a moment of when he's in sheer shock and you see all of that, the joy, and the ecstasy falls and dissipates and he's in a sheer sense of pain. To get that notion I had to start him at a thousand, so when I bring him to zero you can see the massive shift. Because then it's fantastic. I feel like it's been one of the most interesting processes in terms of working with how you can take a character story and mould it and give it a sense of depth which has been fun to play with.

That's such an in-depth and interesting process, I love it. What were some of the big key moments for you, kind of in the buildup to opening night in terms of working on the production, kind of pre-production?

Firstly we had a table read when we first got to Sydney. This was just a month ago. We had our table read and I just met some of the most magnetic people for the first time. They were reading this text with such truth and such empathy and compassion for every little word that they were saying, that it was just an incredible blessing to just be a part of that group. All the members of the creative team I remember after the first read, we were all sobbing because we realised how beautiful this story is and how needed it is within today's society. And then before we went to opening night, we had our last rehearsal, which had the same energy, the same oomph that we know the play had. It was just such a therapeutic and spiritual experience for all of us. And honestly, every night that we've done the show with previews, every preview that we've done so far has been a standing ovation, after standing ovation because we are tapping more and more into the truth. It can only get better from here, but I just feel like every time we walk on stage and we just sing together, it just feels so, so warm and beautiful and I feel like that's a highlight for me.

That's so lovely, and so great there's been that positive reaction. Do you have a particular scene from the play that's your favourite and why would that be your favourite scene?

Oh, I love my scene with Bobby. So we have the third scene in the play, which is when you get to meet us, after you've seen the start of the play and you see how Bobby behaves. So when you get to meet Bobby and Junior as people for the first time, it's so beautiful because of the way our friendship goes in that scene and how you see two very distinct personalities, and how they navigate that to be friends with each other regardless of their very distinct and different personalities. Every time I do that scene I leave the stage with such a sense of joy because I'm like, 'yes, yes, they get to see that, they get to see that we're not horrible people'. And we also get to do a strip tease together. We have a classroom scene where we do this massive dance break, we do a dance duet and it's the most hectic thing that you've ever seen the two of them do. And it's just so fun. So yeah, every time I'm on stage with Bobby, it's just a joy for me.

What messages do you hope the audiences take away from the play and these characters?

I feel like in all essence, I feel like the show is written to show that as human beings we're not incapable of making mistakes. In the depth of humanity there's so many parts of us that are flawed regardless of how we're brought up or how we see the world or worldview blah, blah, blah. Regardless of that we have a part of us that is flawed and it's ever so slightly acknowledging that, and then trying to change and trying to improve with every little step and every knowledge that you gain, that is what makes you a special person, a special thing in this society. And that's exactly what the play does. It doesn't shy away from the imperfections of a person or the imperfections of a community or religion or sexual identity or it doesn't shy away from the notion that nothing is created perfectly. It just shows you what the possibilities could be if we just try and be open-minded and just try and reach with everything that we've got, and the heart that we've got. So I just hope that people take the sense of hope and the sense of support, and the sense of growth that each of these characters are going through regardless of their different paths and journey.

That was very beautiful! What was it like bringing the words of Academy Award® winning writer of Moonlight, Tarell Alvin McCraney to life on stage and putting the themes in such a raw and intimate setting? Did you feel a kind of responsibility in that aspect?

I think our directors in this process have just been doing God's work, because Tarell's work is very beautiful, beautifully written. It's so incredible how he's done this particular script, every little punctuation, every little sentence, every little word has been thought of very particularly. And it's honestly the sense of carrying that, and having to stick to deliver what is written is a job of its own. Very much so. Because when we speak normally we have little things that we interject and stuff, but just following the punctuation in, obviously get the story because with beautiful writing like this, the work that is written does the work that the actor would normally do as well because it's written so well. It gives you the pace of where the scene is meant to go, where it's meant to be directed. And our directors always make sure to bring us back to following the punctuation and just knowing, it is there for you. It's just how you deliver it and how you respond to it. I feel like there is a sense of responsibility of putting this work out there, especially since he's [Tarell Alvin McCraney] gonna be seeing the show as well. But there is that sense of responsibility of, 'I want to deliver this with as much truth and as much heart and connection as possible, but also I want to make it my own as well'. So it's balance. Finding the fine line between the two of them has been fun.

To finish off, could you describe Choir Boy in three words?

Ooh. Okay. Spiritual, beautiful. Oh, it's so difficult to just pick a few words. I'm trying to find the most defined words of carrying it. It's spiritual, it's beautiful, it's poetic.

The Australian premiere of Choir Boy is playing until March 11, 2023, at Riverside Theatre. Tickets are on sale now!


Riverside Theatres


Wed 22 February, 2023

8:00 pm

Thu 23 February, 2023

8:00 pm

Fri 24 February, 2023

8:00 pm

Sat 25 February, 2023

2:00 pm

Sat 25 February, 2023

8:00 pm

Tue 28 February, 2023

11:00 am

Wed 1 March, 2023

8:00 pm

Thu 2 March, 2023

8:00 pm

Fri 3 March, 2023

8:00 pm

Sat, 4 March, 2023

8:00 pm



Wed 22 March, 2023


Thu 23 March, 2023


Post-show Q&A

Fri 24 March, 2023


Sat 25 March, 2023

1.30pm and 7.30pm

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