from October 9 to 28, 2018

A Talk with the Choir Boys

Richard Burnett
Commentaires
Choir Boys

Montreal’s Centaur Theatre Company launches its historic 50th season with the much-anticipated drama Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the out playwright who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for the film Moonlightl.

McCraney’s acclaimed Choir Boy (which also makes its Broadway premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club in December) tells the story of Pharus, a gay teen attending the Charles R. Drew Prep School for African-American boys.
 
The Montreal production is directed by theatre veteran Mike Payette, features Floydd Ricketts as musical director, and stars an outstanding ensemble cast: Steven Charles (as Pharus), Patrick Abellard, Lyndz Dantiste, Christopher Parker and Vlad Alexis as the five student choir boys. Black Theatre Workshop’s artistic director Quincy Armorer returns to the Centaur stage to play the boys’ Headmaster, and Paul Rainville portrays white professor Mr. Pendleton.
 
I recently interviewed out actors Quincy Armorer and Vlad Alexis about co-starring in Choir Boy which runs at the Centaur from October 9 to 28.
 
The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
 
 
How much did you want to be a part of this amazing cast?
Quincy Armorer: More than anything, I was just excited that it was being done! As an AD, I get to see a lot of theatre – many Black plays, many queer plays – but it’s not often that I get to see shows where these two sides of my identity intersect. When I got the call to audition, I really wanted to be in this show.
Vlad Alexis: I knew that it consisted of a group of five Black young men. That alone sold me on the idea. 
 
What is it about Choir Boy that you like, that speaks about the Black gay experience?
 
Quincy: I think Black gay men can connect to “mainstream” queer stories, but we come at them with a completely different perspective. Even though it isn’t talked about as often as it should be, there’s so much homophobia in the Black community as there is racism in the queer community – believe me, I’ve lived both. My lived experience as a Black gay man is different from many other gay men, so Choir Boy resonates with me in a way that other brilliant gay-themed plays simply haven’t. It’s an intrinsic thing.
Vlad: (Playwright) Tarell Alvin McCraney wasn’t pretending to be Pharus in the story, he is Pharus in a deep metaphorical way.
 
As out Black gay men, how important is this play?  
Quincy: Representation matters. Our industry needs to be telling stories about everyone, and Choir Boy is a positive glimpse into the world of Black gay men rarely seen. How wonderful will it be for young Black gay men to come to the show and see a part of themselves represented on stage? I wish that I had seen a play like Choir Boy when I was growing up. 
Vlad: Growing up I rarely had those references to inspire myself from, and when Black gay men were present in a story they were often depicted as a stereotype without no context or explanation as to why the character is behaving in such a manner. This play not only gives you an insight into what it is to be Black and gay, but also what it is to be Black men through different lenses.
 
Tarell Alvin McCraney is also out. When he grew up, as a kid he was small for his age, bullied at school for being different and not being into sports. He was called “faggot” by others. What was it like for you growing up?
Vlad: I was bullied for being “different.” I was called faggot, nigger, pushed around and stuff. But my mother always told me, “Vlad, you are a small boy, but never let anybody step on you.” So I would pick and choose my battles.
Quincy: I certainly had my fair share of bullying. I wasn’t into sports, I liked to dance. (Being bullied) was inevitable, I suppose, especially back then. I like to think that things are better now for young queer folk, but every once in a while, reading the paper or watching the news, I’m reminded that we actually haven’t come as far as I like to think we have.
   
 
How was your coming out?
Quincy: It was hard. I didn’t come out to my parents until I was almost 30, though I had told my closest friends years before. Coming from a West Indian background and being a first-generation Canadian, I put a lot of pressure on myself to “represent the family well.” Being gay just couldn’t be a part of that, so I just kept it to myself. But eventually I just thought, I got to be me!
Actually, when I was in my early 20s, my little brother asked me outright if I was gay. I was stunned and said, “Don’t ask me that.” When he asked me why, not wanting to lie to him or make him keep a secret from our patents, I replied, “Because it’s not the right time yet for me to answer that question.” He looked me square in the eye and said “Okay.” He nodded and kept looking me in the eye with a loving smile on his face. That’s when I knew. I’ll never forget that moment.  
Vlad: I came out when I was 16 to some of my friends and 17 to my parents. Most people accepted me for who I am and fought for me because my hardest challenge was accepting myself. I come from a religious background and was always told that people like me burn in hell. It took me a while to rewire my thoughts and tell myself, “I’m alright just the way I am.”
 
Did you worry that publicly coming out might negatively affect your career? 
Quincy: I didn’t really worry about it. I don’t think theatre would exist if it wasn’t for gay people! 
 
Vlad: Plus, straight actors don’t have to (come out), so I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to let my sexuality define my craft (either). 

Quincy et vlad CHRISTINE LATOUR

Your thoughts about racism in the LGBTQ communities …
Vlad: Throughout history, the identity of LGBTQ has been catered to one specific group – gay white cis men. But we can’t forget all the pioneers of colour and different genders that helped break that ceiling for all of us. 
 
Quincy: I try not to judge, but I always find it surprising when people who come from marginalized communities are quick to be hurtful and negative towards others. I’ve certainly felt the racism that exists in the LGBTQ communities, but I also know that it’s not the majority. We are more open and accepting and loving than anything else. I try to focus on that.  
 
I have long said that after my name, my being gay is the most important thing about my identity. I was wondering what it is like for you: How central to your identity is your Blackness? How central to your identity is being gay?
Quincy: They are both very central to who I am, but I also wouldn’t say that they define me. I’ve known my Blackness long before I ever knew what being gay meant, but in either case, I try not to let the way I live my life be about needing to assert these parts of myself. They just are.
 
I don’t know how to be anything other than Black and gay, but not everything about me is about my Blackness or about being gay. I feel more defined by being my parents’ son and my brothers’ brother. But I do love the sense of belonging I feel when I’m with Black people and the pride I feel when I’m with my LGBTQ family. It’s who I am. I can’t live without either one. 
 
Vlad: Labels are a way for people to categorize or find common traits with each other but as beings living a human experience, we have to think beyond that. Being Black and gay are definitely part of my journey and who I am – just like being a man of Caribbean descent with ADD and hyper-activeness are – especially in a world where not everyone is accepted for who they are. But it does not define my wholeness. I look forward to the day when we won’t have to use labels to identify ourselves. 
How proud are you of this production?
Vlad: I love Tarell Alvin McCraney and what he creates, so to be in one of his projects is a once in a lifetime experience. (Director) Mike Payette is a genius. He was my co-star in New Canadian Kid a couple years ago, he is a mentor and a good friend of mine, and now he is my director. His vision for things are so deep and intricate. This show speaks about injustice and the yearning to be equal. This is everybody’s fight in a way. To tell this story from the angle of five young Black men is very special because we know what it is to be pushed aside and marginalized. I’m just so excited to tell this beautiful story that has so much heart, so much guts and so much history.  
 
Quincy: I think that years from now, when I’m looking back on my career, Choir Boy will by one of those projects that I’m most proud to have been a part of. This is a first for me, where being both Black and gay is at the very heart of the story. This means a lot to me, and to be able to tell this beautiful important story with these amazing artists and with my dear friend Mike Payette directing, I honestly couldn’t be happier. 
 
Choir Boy runs at the Centaur Theatre Company in Old Montreal from October 9 to 28, 2018. For tickets, visit www.centaurtheatre.com.
 
Read Richard Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.