Boston Gay Men’s Chorus carries a hopeful tune to South Africa
Whether the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus is performing Broadway, boy bands, hymns, or Katy Perry’s greatest hits, you can be sure that its repertoire is going to be relentlessly hopeful and optimistic.
“I tend to think that we're citizens of the world. That this is one great big group of people that has to learn to live together,” says Reuben M. Reynolds, who has been the chorus’s music director for 20 years.
“We’re all part of the human heart,” he says, quoting a song the chorus performs from the musical “Once on This Island.” “We’re here because of those who came before us. It’s our responsibility to pass on the things that we were taught.”
On June 11, the chorus will launch on a tour to South Africa, bringing 94 singers and 30 support staff and family members. While abroad, members will learn about South African music, share the stage with South Africa’s first gay men’s chorus, and donate concert proceeds to a number of organizations that support LGBTQ youth and asylum seekers in the country. But before they go, you can catch the chorus singing their tour program, “Together,” at Jordan Hall Saturday and Sunday.
The program includes Broadway songs, a suite of American folk tunes, and pop hits. (Yes, they’re singing “Africa” by Toto.) It also has songs in African languages: the popular folk song “Shosholoza,” and “Baba Yetu,” Christopher Tin’s joyous Swahili language theme from the video game “Civilization IV,” which was recorded by the Soweto Gospel Choir.
“You wouldn’t know [‘Baba Yetu’] is the Lord's Prayer. It’s very syncopated, very rhythmic, but uplifting,” says tenor Nick Everage, 39, a soft-spoken epidemiologist who sings a solo in that song. “It makes you think about the Lord’s Prayer in a new and exciting way.”
Though the chorus’s repertoire may be bright and cheerful, the issues it confronts are frequently anything but. The BGMC was formed in 1982 in the early days of the AIDS crisis, and it has performed for many AIDS service organizations. Later, it sang out in the fight for marriage equality.
“We have same-sex marriage, but now we’re fighting for our trans brothers and sisters, and making sure they have equal protection under the law,” says Everage, who joined the chorus in 2002.
And some of those trans brothers are singing along. Alex Kapitan, 34, who identifies as nonbinary, had no idea what to expect at his first audition. But the chorus enthusiastically embraced Kapitan. “No one ever blinked an eye. It was one of the most welcoming experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
On past tours in Central Europe and the Middle East, the chorus’s out-and-proud attitude has provoked protests. In 2015, the chorus was forced to find a new location for a concert in Istanbul after the original venue pulled the plug in the face of a public outcry. Then, the day after the show at a substitute venue at Bosphorus University, the members planned to march in the Istanbul Pride Parade, which had attracted tens of thousands of people in previous years. Instead, they were turned away by riot police, and the parade was shut down with tear gas and water cannons.
For Everage, the experience was eye-opening. “We can march down Boylston and Newbury and have politicians show up and march with us,” he says. “There, they couldn’t even organize to march down the street.”
So for Reynolds, it was important to take the chorus on tour somewhere where it could make a difference. “We knew that [tour] needed to be something more than singing and being on vacation,” says Bill Casey, Reynolds’s husband, who sings in the chorus. “I don't think we’re intending on burning any bridges in South Africa. But we still wanted to make sure that it was about social action, and we were doing something that the guys would feel like they were proud to put their time in.”
The chorus hired ACFEA Tour Consultants to plan and organize the tour, and their representatives have been working with the chorus’s tour committee to prepare the singers for the trip. “Obviously the tour company’s not going to put us in harm’s way, but the tour company is also focused on not doing easy things,” says Tyler Brewer, 28, who serves on the tour committee. “We want to go to a place where we might not be as socially accepted.”
The post-apartheid Constitution of South Africa prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the country legalized same-sex marriage in 2006. But homophobia still persists in places, Reynolds says. “If you live in Cape Town, [the Constitution] is the reality,” he says. “If you live in the countryside, that’s not.”
"We’re about changing hearts and minds through the power of music, and I believe in that wholeheartedly,” Everage says. “By our going out and singing around not only the Boston area, but around the world, we have impacted people in ways that I could never as an individual.”
Boston GAY MEN’s CHORUS: Together
At Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough St., Boston, Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets: $25-$125, 617-542-7464, www.bgmc.org/tickets