Monday, October 17, 2016

Master Harold and some Double Acts

I made it up to North York for Athol Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys.  I found it very powerful production, though knowing the ending I had more trouble laughing during the various amusing set scenes early on in the play.  It is also quite difficult hearing how Willie really has no problem beating his dance partner, though he does promise at the end to not do that any more.  I think Fugard is sort of lulling the audience into a bit of false complacency with the humor, though Harold is a bit snippy throughout and certainly the phone calls from his Mum signal that there is trouble ahead.  Generally the audience isn't very happy with plays that start out one way and end another.  (David Henry Hwang's Family Devotions is another one that sort of confounds expectations.)  I think in this case, the fact that the play is relatively compact (about 80 minutes) and that there is some signalling of the emotional turmoil in Harold's heart has generally led audiences to accept these shifts.

A bigger question is whether the play is still relevant over 20 years since the end of apartheid.  In a general sense, there is still a huge amount of privilege floating about in the world (more economic than racial, though the racial elements have not withered away completely).  I think the play does help people think about how power/privilege is perpetuated and in that way it is still relevant.  I'm not sure there have been that many plays about it, but there are certainly writers (particularly Faulkner and Eudora Welty) that looked at how Southern men could grow up loving their Black nannies more than their own mothers but who still would fight to maintain slavery.  So it isn't really a surprise that Harold, steeped in white privilege, has no problem ordering around Willie and Sam and, when the chips are down, doesn't see them as equals.  Fugard is making a point that racism hurts whites as well as Blacks, and makes it effectively, but there are certainly quite a few people that feel sympathy for Harold is misguided.  He is ultimately the beneficiary of the system, and, while it is somewhat possible that he will think hard about his position and come around to treating Sam as an equal (maybe as early as the next clear day), that seems unlikely.  Sam is, to my mind, just a bit too much like a stand-in for Jesus, always turning the other cheek and trying too hard to save the "soul" of a fairly callow school boy.

Of course, in our relentlessly shallow world, there is a hashtag devoted to #nowhitetears (referenced by this review), which to me trivializes the question of whether this kind of art makes a positive difference by forcing those with privilege to own up to it, or whether it would be better just to focus on the Black South African experience.  (I believe I already mentioned that Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a far more satisfying production, since it doesn't dwell on the damage that racists have done to themselves and is mostly about how Blacks could survive within a racist system.)  I happen to think there is space for both types of plays, and that this kind of art that does feature whites behaving badly is going to be more effective (as far as it goes) than glib hashtags about checking one's privilege, not that either by themselves would have brought down the apartheid system.  As an aside, I was sitting right in front of two people who knew nothing about the play and thought they were in for a comedy!  I did try to warn them, though they were chuckling heavily throughout the early going.  As I was leaving, I saw that the young man had been crying heavily by the end of the show.  One cannot read what is another's heart, but I would guess the fraught relationship Harold has with his father might have been more moving than reflecting on the insidiousness of racism.  I had a good relationship with my parents, and thus this aspect of the play has always been far more academic to me.

Anyway, I would still recommend seeing the play (as does the Slotkin Letter), but just realize that it isn't really the best play to take a date...  I believe there is one week left in the run.

Next weekend will be a bit of an experiment.  At the Theatre Centre, there is a two-act mime show where you book the tickets for free and then decide on the way out what you want to pay.  I wasn't entirely sure I was going to go, and then I found out that the first act is about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich waiting to find out if Stalin was going to have him arrested or worse.  As an extra bonus, Shostakovich's music plays during the scene.  This review suggests that both acts are fairly interesting, so I suppose I should make sure to bring a reasonable amount of dosh to leave in the tip jar.

I haven't entirely decided on the next double act, which is Quiver and Mouthpiece by Nightwood.  This was a bit off my radar, but I just saw a subway ad for the show(s) and decided to follow up.  The two shows are actually playing at Buddies in Bad Times for three weeks or so (details here).  It's very hard to describe in a few words, but Mouthpiece seems to be two actors representing the different voices in one woman's head after her mother's death.  Quiver is one woman playing 3 characters using a vocal processor and a laptop.  I am torn between going during the preview (though this might be a case where the first show or two features technical difficulties) and the last week of the run.

No comments:

Post a Comment