Master Harold ...and the Boys
Court House Theatre - Niagara-on-the-Lake
by Mike Keenan
André Sills as Sam, James Daly as Hally and Allan Louis as Willie. Photo by David Cooper
The sheer audacity of it took my breath away. I mean, seriously, what the hell does a black man know about flying a kite?
Shaw's Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell, introduced us to two racially thematic plays this season, after opening with a totally white cast in Our Town. Her timing is impeccable with the chronic strife filtering weekly from the U.S.A. with black and white Americans shooting one another all over the map, and police officers acting courageously or brutally. A ridiculous Wild West "open carry" of weapons in some states is gasoline poured on to the violent maelstrom as liberals and conservatives try to engage in "democratic" big-city national conventions to elect the next president.
For this reason alone, one might attend first a performance of Master Harold ...and the Boys at the Court House Theatre and also Lisa Codrington's The Adventures of the Black Girl In Her Search for God. For the former, Maxwell says, "(Fugard)... is surely one of the most important playwrights in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His unceasing desire to expose the horrors of apartheid in its many guises and at the same time reveal the hearts of those in the middle of it have resulted in seminal pieces of political theatre. Master Harold is certainly one of his most affecting stories. I am very happy to welcome back Philip Akin to direct and to continue our partnership with Toronto's Obsidian Theatre."
Akin delivers as does his talented cast, the setting Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 1950. Harold does homework in a tea-shop owned by his parents while two black workers rehearse ballroom dancing. Hally and the men, long time employees, recall fond memories of time spent together as the young boy escaped the pressures of his dysfunctional family life. But when news arrives that the boy's problematic father is soon returning home, the personal becomes acutely political.
Akin adeptly allows the issue of racial and political inequality to slowly smoulder as the action gradually builds into a crescendo and finally explodes in a powerful depiction of apartheid seen through the eyes of the 17-year old befriended by the two black workers that staff his mother's restaurant.
Allan Louis (Willie) characteristically defers to the boy, careful to call him "master Harold" while André Sills (Sam) relates to him as "Hally," acting as a friend and mentor, interacting playfully with the troubled lad during his homework assignments in History, Math and English.
At first, they are good-natured, for example, in examining one another's estimation of "magnitude" and which world leader each thinks actually personified it. Both learn from each other, and ironically, Sills employs his authoritative voice to express positive thoughts and reminiscences to bolster Hally's pain concerning his alcoholic, spendthrift father, soon to return to disrupt his life. He reminds Hally of the simple kite that he fashioned, seemingly ugly and ineffective, but that it magically soared on Sam's faith alone.
As Sam and Willie practise ballroom dancing for an upcoming contest, they try to transfer their simple pleasure to Harold, (James Daly), explaining to him that the idea is for the dancers to be free and happy and not to "bounce" into or disrupt other dancers. Sills delightfully turns this into a metaphor for people and nations, but we watch helplessly as the boy's life becomes increasingly muddled, and his lack of grounding enables him to act out in despicable fashion.
Daly, Sills and Louis are riveting on stage as the blaze intensifies, and Louis reveals that the violence of inequality is easily transferred within race as he admits to beating his girlfriend. Daly nails the South African accent courtesy of Shaw's voice and dialect coach, Sarah Shippobotham, and also his wild teenage character fluctuations that become increasingly strident and seismic. At the end of the play, all three actors were treated to a well-deserved standing ovation.
Peter Hartwell's tight restaurant set is cleverly effective in its constraint along with Kevin Lamotte's lighting and Valerie Moore's choreography.
First produced in 1982, the play was initially banned in South Africa and has since become an enduring, modern classic that continues to speak to inequality and injustice. The other racially themed play, Lisa Codrington's The Adventures of the Black Girl In Her Search for God, exposes white colonialism in the form of Christianity. I highly recommend both.
Master Harold ...and the Boys plays until September 10 at the Courthouse Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Shawfest.com or 800-511-7429.
The program notes as always are extremely helpful, particularly those on the author, Athol Fugard.
"Don't suppose I will ever deal with the shame ... " by Dennis Walder
There is a painful, guilt-ridden intensity at the heart of all Athol Fugard's best work. As a white South African, with a background in both the Afrikaner and English-speaking communities which held the reins of power during the apartheid era, the playwright's anxieties should come as no surprise. More surprising, however, is his extraordinary ability to shape this existential anguish into plays which, over more than half a century, have engaged audiences worldwide, confirming his position as his country's foremost playwright, and a figure
of international renown.
Fugard's approach to theatre is disarmingly simple: all the theatre needs, he claims,
is "the actor and the stage, the actor on the stage. Around him is space, to be filled and defined by movement and gesture; around him is also silence, to be filled with meaning, using words and sounds, and at moments when all else fails him, including the words, the silence itself." This helps explain his reliance upon his chosen actors - most of his plays were created in collaboration with performers, whose lived experience he has drawn on, most significantly during the apartheid era with black actors like Zakes Mokae and John Kani, who played Sam in the American (1982) and South African (1983) premieres of "Master Harold" ... and the Boys.
All Fugard's plays have emerged from encounters in the real world, the world of the
South African everyday, which meant for over three decades the world of apartheid. Now that the abhorrent system is a thing of the past, and his country has moved towards a democratic, multiracial future, it may seem as if this work has lost its raison d'être. But as "Master Harold" ... and the Boys demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth. "Master Harold" appeared at a terrible time in the country. It seemed as if, after years of struggle, the apartheid monolith would survive and resistance be crushed. Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were languishing on Robben Island where they had been locked up for the past two decades; a new round of younger 'politicals' from the Black Consciousness Movement had joined them; and the white minority government was continuing to clamp down on opposition, despite worldwide condemnation and internal unrest. As a playwright known for directly addressing the effects of apartheid legislation, such as the pass laws (Sizwe Bansi is Dead, 1972), the 'Immorality' law forbidding sexual relations between the races (Statements After An Arrest, 1972), and political imprisonment (The Island, 1973), Fugard might have been expected to confront the anger and violence all around him.
Well, in "Master Harold" he does. But not directly; instead, he shows the corrosive and eventually explosive effect of racial ideology upon the relationship between a callow white youth (Hally) and two adult black servants, Sam and Willie. By exposing the individual, indeed personal roots of racism, he strikes at the core belief system underpinning the network of assumptions that dominated his country for so long, and which in some respects continues there as elsewhere to define black people as inferior and fit only to serve.
Fugard's subtle theatrical craft draws us inexorably through pain and humour into
a situation which seems to demand a violent response on behalf of the dispossessed and powerless, yet which we are encouraged to see would be futile and self-defeating. The challenge, of how to deal with an extreme and oppressive ideology, faces everyone
today. The play was banned for a time by the South African authorities and aroused extraordinarily powerful reactions in audiences at the time and later - audiences often divided into volubly partisan groups in the face of the shocking development at its centre. The exorcism of private guilt seemed to provide the opportunity for an exorcism of public guilt.
Fugard sees his job as a playwright to "witness as truthfully as I can, the nameless and destitute of one little corner of the world". That little corner has been the unlovely, windswept seaboard city of Port Elizabeth, where he was brought up and where he attended the local technical college, while his mother supported the family, including his disabled, alcoholic father, by running the Jubilee Boarding House, and then the St George's Park Tea Room. That tea room is the setting for "Master Harold"; the boy is a version of Fugard
himself (who was called Hally), made a few years older to coincide with the hardening of apartheid in 1950, the time of the play; and the ironically-named 'boys' are based on the family's two servants. The unusually detailed (for Fugard) set suggests a familiar nostalgic image, a family photograph coming to life, to the strains of a barely-remembered Sarah Vaughan song.
Fugard once called himself the "classic example of the impotent white liberal". But his sense of remorse motivates his plays, most notably "Master Harold". He has traced his feelings to a specific incident in his childhood. His "most significant - the only friend" of his boyhood was the black waiter who served in his mother's tearoom, Sam Semela, who had worked for the family for some fifteen years. One day when the boy was behind the tearoom counter and Semela was waiting on table, they had a "rare quarrel", the subject of which has been long forgotten. In a "truculent" silence they closed the tea room, and set off home, the waiter to the blacks-only township of New Brighton, the teenage white boy following a few minutes later on his bicycle. I saw him walking ahead of me and, coming out of a spasm of acute loneliness, as I rode behind him I called his name. He turned in mid-stride to look back and, as I cycled past, I spat in his face. Don't suppose I will ever deal with the shame that overwhelmed me the second after I had done that.
For years Fugard secretly carried within the memory of that act of adolescent betrayal, unable to talk or write about it. One of his so-called 'appointments', it took some forty
years before he could "deal with the shame", he later confided to his Notebooks.
Witnessing is a complex matter, and nostalgia, or recalling one's own personal past
may not seem to be part of it; yet, given the enormous pressures to conform - or to protest
and be imprisoned or exiled - memory work was a practical, potentially effective
intervention. And whether Fugard was conscious of it or not, he left us with a remarkably
effective image of his country's future, a future from which the minority white population
had apparently excluded themselves through their past behaviour - two black men in
harmony. How long that will last remains to be seen.
Director's Notes by Philip Akin
Looking back into memory is often a mixed blessing. Does the "who we are now" irrevocably colour the "who we were" then? Does looking back provide a path to atonement or a flail to punish?
"Master Harold" ... and the Boys is a powerful look back that leads us to a pivotal point in the life of Athol Fugard. It takes that memory and locks it like an insect in amber. Preserved, opaque, warm and unflinching. Memory, like amber, lets us revisit the past and try to glean fresh understanding.
South African dramatist, actor, and director Athol Fugard (b.1932) is world renowned for his plays' probing and pessimistic interrogations of South African life during the apartheid period. Fugard - born Harold Athol Fugard and known as 'Hally' for much of his childhood - studied philosophy and social anthropology at the University of Cape Town before dropping out to hitchhike across Africa. He took a job as a deck hand on a ship but began acting after marrying drama student Sheila Mering in 1956. He then founded the Circle Players with his wife and began writing passionately political plays. His first, Klaas and the Devil (1957), was soon followed by others written for the interracial theatre company
including No-Good Friday (1958) and Nongogo (1959). It was his 1961 play Blood Knot, an intense critique of racism and segregation, which earned him international recognition.
The play was produced for television by BBC starring Fugard opposite Jamaican actor Charles Hyatt and resulted in the South African government withdrawing Fugard's passport for several years. Plays such as Hello and Good-bye (1965) and Boesman and Lena (1969) followed, and Fugard became more prominent worldwide than any South African playwright in history.
Fugard worked briefly as a Native Commissioner's Court clerk, witnessing the enforcement and punishment of apartheid law and sparking the moral outrage reflected in his work. In 1962 Fugard attracted the attention of the South African secret police by publicly supporting the Anti-Apartheid Movement's boycott of segregated South African theatres. Throughout the '70S and '80S Fugard continued to oppose South African censorship policies, establishing oppositional theatre groups including the Serpent Players, an all-black group of actors.
Facing early critiques for his heavy symbolism, Fugard began to organically develop new work from groups of images and ideas. Orestes (1978), Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1974), The Island (1974) and Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act (1974) are results of this experiment, set aside soon after for the more traditional structures found in Dimentos (1977), "Master Harold" and the Boys (1982) and The Road to Mecca (1985). During this time Fugard also published his novel, Tsotsi (1980; film 2005), along with dozens of notebook and journal entries. When apartheid law was dismantled in 1990-1991, Fugard's plays became increasingly autobiographical. Play land (1992), Valley Song (1996) and The Captain's Tiger (1997) were joined by Fugard's memoir, Cousins, in 1994. His post-apartheid plays - addressing the lingering consequences and collective guilt facing South Africans - include Sorrows and Rejoicings (2002), Victory (2009) and The Train Driver (2010).
Fugard now lives in California with his family and is an Adjunct Professor of
Playwriting, Acting and Directing at the University of California San Diego. He is the recipient of a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement (2011) and the Japan Art Association's Praemium Imperiale Prize for Theatre/Film (2014). In 2010 the Fugard Theatre was opened in Cape Town, South Africa in recognition of Fugard's efforts toward the exposure of injustices and support of universal humanity.