The uniforms of home on faraway grass in the funny, moving The Men in White

Chanakya Mukherjee & John Chou. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre opens its 49th season with Dora award-winning playwright Anosh Irani’s funny and moving The Men in White, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Miquelon Rodriguez. Set in both India and Canada, a struggling Vancouver cricket team needs a miracle to put an end to a humiliating losing streak—and one team member’s little brother back home might be just the ticket. Now, the team just needs to agree on the plan and find a way to get him over from Mumbai.

Taken in as a child by family friend Baba (Huse Madhavji, who fellow Saving Hope fans will recognize as neurosurgeon Dr. Shahir Hamza) along with his older brother Abdul following the death of their parents, 18-year-old Hasan (Chanakya Mukherjee) works as a chicken cutter in Baba’s shop in the Dongri neighbourhood of Mumbai. As he executes and dismembers chickens, his heart and mind are set on becoming a professional cricket player and capturing the attention of pretty local pre-med student and customer Haseena (Tahirih Vejdani). These dreams are a stretch, as he’s a relatively uneducated working class orphan living and working in a tough neighbourhood—and his extreme awkwardness has him constantly putting his foot in his mouth around Haseena. On top of that, Haseena has also caught the eye of a cool motorcycle dude with ties to a local gang.

MeninWhite-Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee, Huse Madhavji photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee & Huse Madhavji. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Over in Vancouver, Hasan’s older brother Abdul (Gugun Deep Singh), who cooks for and lives in the back of an Indian restaurant, has found home with a local cricket team comprised mainly of South Asians. But the team can’t seem to shake a brutal losing streak, and on top of struggling to motivate his players—including on and off the field player Ram (Farid Yazdani) and the athletically challenged Sam (John Chou)—team captain Randy (Sugith Varughese) also finds himself navigating Doc’s (Cyrus Faird) anti-Muslim sentiment as he referees Doc’s outbursts against Abdul. And when Abdul suggests bringing Hasan, a gifted bowler and batter, over to save the team’s tarnished reputation, the team is faced with internal debate and the problem of sorting out how they’d even accomplish such a plan.

As Hasan and the team are both faced with being labelled “losers,” having him join the team appears to be a match made in heaven; and the prospect of having a chance to win for a change injects some much needed excitement and confidence all around. It also makes for some deep soul-searching about religious and cultural tensions, and why they play cricket, as confessions and revelations of hard realities emerge. Some play cricket because it reminds them of home, some play to forget, some play to belong, and some play to rise above the dullness of a workaday life and tragic lived experience.

Stand-up work from the ensemble in this story of family, life and belonging. Madhavji is a laugh riot as the testy Baba; and though he’s highly adept at mercilessly teasing Hasan, Baba has a good, loving heart under that cranky exterior. Mukherjee’s Hasan is an adorkable combination of gritty determination and hopeless awkwardness; particularly in his scenes with Vejdani, whose intelligent and sharp-witted Haseena is matched by her equally barbed retorts—Haseena is no wilting flower and suffers no fools.

MeninWhite-JohnChou, SugithVarughese, CyrusFaird, FaridYazdani, GugunDeepSingh photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
John Chou, Sugith Varughese, Cyrus Faird, Farid Yazdani & Gugun Deep Singh. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

The men in the locker room walk a fine line between comedy and tragedy as they deal with the underlying personal histories they bring to the struggling team. Yazdani’s devil-may-care bro/ ladies’ man Ram and Chou’s dim-witted, movie aficionado Sam make for some great comic relief. There’s more than meets the eye with these two, as Ram has government connections to assist with bringing Hasan over; and Chou, who’s Chinese and therefore an unlikely cricketer, got into cricket because of an Indian childhood BFF. Singh’s nicely understated performance as the unassuming Abdul mines the fading hopes and dreams of a man who left his home in search of a better life for himself and his brother—only to find broken promises and more hardship. Faird’s tightly wound, resentful, white-collar professional Doc is a perfect foil to Abdul; Doc’s animosity is underpinned by a tragic history and broken heart—and he has more in common with his perceived enemy than he would care to admit. All held together by Varughese’s aggravated but good-natured team captain Randy; despite the idle threats, Randy loves this Bad News Bears bunch of guys—and he has ghosts of his own to deal with.

With shouts to Steve Lucas’s clever and effectively designed set, which neatly splits the stage into Baba’s chicken shop and the locker room. The bamboo and chicken wire of the shop merge with the metal poles and chicken wire (standing in for chain link) of the cricket pitch locker room; Astroturf is incorporated into the checkerboard floor and a projected map of the world dominates up centre.

The Men in White continues in the Factory Theatre mainspace until November 4; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

 

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A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys

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James Daly & André Sills, with Allan Louis in the background, in “Master Harold” …and the Boys – photo by Harold Akin

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.