Obsidian Theatre, in association with the Shaw Festival, brought its production of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” …and the Boys to Toronto, opening last night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio theatre.
Directed by Philip Akin, and inspired by Fugard’s childhood relationships with the black employees of his mother’s tea room, “Master Harold” …and the Boys is set in 1950s South Africa, in St. George’s Park Tea Room. It is here that young Hally (James Daly) spends most of his after-school hours, doing homework and hanging out with tea room employees Sam (André Sills) and Willie (Allan Louis). The three have an easy-going, friendly relationship, particularly Hally and Sam; full of witty banter, good-natured teasing and philosophical debates on everything from men of magnitude and social reform, to education and art, to the global vision gleaned from the local black community ballroom dance competition. Darkening Hally’s mood is the possibility that his crippled, alcoholic father will be returning home from hospital – a prospect that pricks resentment over having to help his mother be nurse maid, and keep an eye on the household and tea room cash.
Forced into adult responsibilities early in his life, and now the de facto man of the house, Hally is coming of age during apartheid; and as the action progresses, we see him waver between familiar pal “Hally” and stern boss “Master Harold.” Ironically, Hally – the privileged one in the room – is the most cynical and pessimistic about the world, seeing only ugliness. Meanwhile, Sam and Willie see beauty and possibility; their enjoyment of ballroom dancing a metaphor for harmony. Sam and Willie have hope, while Hally has none. Perhaps Hally has only fear. As the discussion between Hally and Sam becomes more heated, things are said that cannot be unsaid.
Beautifully nuanced, committed performances from the cast. Louis brings a lovable, child-like sense of joy to Willie, who is excited to be competing in the upcoming ballroom dance competition and determined to master the quick step. A simple man of the old school, Willie sees nothing wrong with laying a beating on his girl Hilda when she steps out of line – but at least he’s smart enough to take Sam’s advice to stop it. Sills gives Sam a quiet strength and dignity, combined with a sharp sense of humour. Pragmatic, but forward-thinking, Sam has a quick mind and a precise memory – and he genuinely cares for Hally, even to the point of being an unexpected father figure. Daly plays nicely on the brink of manhood as Hally; with a Holden Caulfield edge about him, Hally is self-involved, smart and arrogant. Playful and familiar at first with his parents’ employees, hints of a little dictator begin to show as he feels increasingly stressed out over his family situation – and during his tantrums, he takes it out on Sam and Willie. In the end, the boy who hadn’t noticed the Whites Only sign on the park bench must decide if he wants to be a man who sits on that bench or walks away from it. And while some things cannot be unsaid, they can perhaps become a source of learning and growth.
The tea room serves as a microcosm of the larger world it inhabits. And though the play takes place in another time and place, it has much to teach us today about everyday and systemic racism, and the subtle and blatant ways in which it creates barriers based on assumptions, fear and ignorance. Go see this production.
With shouts to the creative team for bringing this world to life – and creating a space that’s not only practical for the purposes of the play, but has an inviting aesthetic that makes you want to sit down for a snack: Peter Hartwell (set and costumes), Kevin Lamotte and Chris Malkowski (lighting), Corey Macfadyen (sound) and Valerie Moore (dance sequence).
A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys.
“Master Harold” …and the Boys continues at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 23. You can get advance tickets online; strongly recommended, given last night’s standing ovation.