Athol Fugard is one of the most prolific and powerful playwrights of our time. His writing is inspiring and daunting. He deals with subjects once thought taboo, although still relevant; his commentary will sting you to the core with the truth.
Fugard has tackled the inequities of apartheid in almost all of his plays. His plays were so controversial that his company (which often consisted of blacks) was not permitted to perform for the white population of South Africa. His plays encouraged playwrights abroad to boycott South Africa for their policies. At one point, his own government withdrew Fugard's passport. It took protests from many artists outside of South Africa to break the stranglehold.
A painful indiscretion at the tender age of 17 fuels Master Harold and the Boys. In the play, Fugard tries to atone for the incident that still haunts him. This event is the crux of the current production at Spokane Civic Theatre. The venture is a cooperative one with the Onyx Theatre Troupe.
There are three characters in the play: Sam, Willie and Hally. Sam and Willie are two black servants who assist Hally's parents in the tea room. They have been "in the family" for years, first at the boarding house and now in the tea room. We learn that Sam has been Hally's friend for years. Sam is his "boet," his brother or comrade, and in many ways, Sam has been a father figure. Hally's father is an alcoholic and a cripple; there is very little love lost in that father-son tie.
Fugard philosophizes about the curse of apartheid and how it has created racial tension. Apartheid, you could say, is the fourth character always looming in the background. As the play develops, we understand the connection that binds the three men.
Hally is a young man, an adolescent schoolboy, who shares knowledge with Sam as he studies. Sam's hero is Abe Lincoln. Hally adores Tolstoy, and Willie is fixated on Fred and Ginger as he prepares for the dance contest he wants to win. We learn that he beats his girlfriend, Hilda; Sam keeps working to elevate Willie, to bring him out of his lower-class, violent ways.
The play takes place in 1950. Initially, we are able to distance ourselves from the full impact of the problems besieging the three men. But as the piece unfolds, we are drawn into the trauma of the times. Hally's attitude changes when he learns his father is going to return home; he reverts to the subjugation of his black friends. He asserts his superiority in an attempt to overcome his anger.
At one point, Hally demands that Sam call him Master Harold; Sam warns Hally that this will forever alter their relationship.
Fugard's politically charged view shapes the piece; he has a strong, driving need to share with us this dysfunctional situation. His greater need is to expiate his own guilt for betraying his friends with his arrogance.
Kim Roberts, a Civic Theatre regular, has done a good job orchestrating the piece. It is a three-person, non-stop, one-hour-and-45-minute adventure that never lags.
The setting is a tea room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on a rainy afternoon. The actors, generally speaking, keep up the pace. David Casteal, who has appeared in several joint productions of Civic and Onyx, is outstanding as Willie. Casteal is a powerful actor who commands the stage. His characterization is excellent; there were moments when I was transported and thought to myself, it's James Earl Jones in Great White Hope. Casteal has that kind of charisma on stage.
Benjamin Evans plays Hally, Fugard's alter ego. Evans makes his debut in this main stage production and acquits himself very nicely. I'm sure we will see more of this promising young man in the future.
Bryan R. Jackson, a familiar theater presence in Spokane, is Sam. He teaches drama at Lewis & amp; Clark High School and has won an award for his portrayal of Jim in Big River. Most of the time, Jackson is very good; his Sam is a good foil for Hally. He is very believable as the black man who knows his place: "I'm all right on oppression," he says. There were, however, a few tense moments, when he was cast adrift, trolling for his lines.
The design team did a commendable job creating the atmosphere of a 1950s South African tea room. The actors, guided impeccably by their director, wash the floor, fold napkins, eat, set tables and just generally make us believe that we are truly in that tea room about to open its doors for high tea. Thanks to dialect coach Ron Varela, we have just the right touch of South African dialects. These dialects are tricky and difficult. A flavor is all we need.
As we celebrate Black History Month (February) and commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., I think it is very appropriate to see this play; to remind us that the world is still not totally free of prejudice and bias. We all need to step back and imagine how it really would be, to live in a colorblind world.