Reflecting the world as it is: Choir Boy’s Abu Kebe and Fangirls’ Manali Datar reflect on where the Music Theatre industry is headed

Choir Boy, the musical by Tarell Alvin McCraney, co-writer of Academy Award-winning film Moonlight,  has been a hit in the US and London. Choir Boy follows a group of African American high school students coming of age while navigating homophobia, racism and the burden of expectations in high school. The central character Pharus is a gifted singer and darling of the school choir, but also a constant target. He is subjected over the course of the play to compounding pressures; violence, racism, homophobia and as he says at one point to the Headmaster, “Everybody 'round you always telling you, showing/ You that you ain't nothing”.

Abu Kebe
Abu Kebe. Photo by Giulia McGauren.

Abu Kebe, currently in his third year of Music Theatre at the VCA, has landed himself a role in the National Theatre of Parramatta’s Production of Choir Boy which launched in Sydney this month and to coincide with World Pride. Abu has previously played a lead role in Albury-Wodonga Theatre’s production of Kinky Boots and the title role in The Other Theatre Company’s production of Othello.

But Choir Boy is particularly significant to him.

“It's a show like no other that I'll probably do for the rest of my music theatre career,” he said.

“It's a cast of queer people and people of colour combined together.”

When he auditioned for the show, Abu was feeling disillusioned about the white-dominated industry.

“There have been certain points where a lot of the cast lists that were coming out didn't have people that look like me or enough people of colour in them. And it was just very heartbreaking for a young person like me studying music theatre, that there’s still a glass ceiling that can feel impossible to reach.”

“It can feel like an impossible dream that we're just trying to achieve,” said Abu about equity and inclusion in the industry.

Casting in productions like Choir Boy and the upcoming & Juliet gives him some hope that change is happening.

Manali Datar, who graduated from Music Theatre in 2018, has also had a successful early career in the industry, and has similar things to say.

Manali Datar in Fangirls
Manali Datar in Fangirls. Image supplied.

Manali played Rose Granger-Weasley for the three-year Melbourne season of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, as well as the title role of Priya Singh in White Pearl by Sydney Theatre Company. Then she was the star of Fangirls written by Yve Blake.

She says the role she played in White Pearl was “empowering, rewarding and validating”.

“She was Indian like me, and I've never been cast in something before that aligned with my race. I'm usually cast in things because, to the white gaze, I look ethnically ambiguous. So it was my first experience being cast as […] an Indian woman, and getting to inhabit that space.”

Like Abu, Manali says the industry has a way to go to reach equity.

“To this day, a lot of the things that we're seeing on the music theatre main stage go against my values, for example, colour blind casting” she said.

“But, I still love the medium when it is done in the right way.”

Head of Music Theatre at the VCA Tyran Parke says structural inequality is the single biggest conversation happening in the industry, and that Music Theatre in Australia is now, more than ever before, starting to address it. He says there’s an unwavering commitment at the VCA to make change in this regard.

“In the last five years, we have experienced societal evolution the likes we have not seen in decades. And now, Music Theatre is joining the quest for performances to reflect the world as it is,” he said.

There’s a need to move away from a mode of learning and talking about structural change, to actually modelling it, Tyran says. This is the only way the industry will thrive into the future.

“The traditional power imbalances in Music Theatre have inherently restricted many creative artists from meaningful contribution, and have actively been a barrier to so many. With the introduction of procedures such as anti-racism training, ‘sensitivity readers’ and a more diverse range of voices informing casting and admissions, we are starting to see that shift.”

Tyran says we still have a long way to go, “but it is a challenging and exciting time to be guided by our students to lead the VCA, and therefore the industry, into a brighter future.”

Manali says, “There are a lot of people who are putting all their effort into making the industry safer, a space that’s more open to constructive criticism that doesn’t rely on tradition in order to stay relevant.

“I'm just interested in characters that I'm drawn to, and stories that I feel like align with my values, that are necessary and need to be told,” says Manali.

VCA Music Theatre is focused on making the future of the industry in Australia one where more of these necessary stories are told, where the stage reflects life, as it is.