The latest production by Obsidian Theatre in Toronto fails to impress
Obsidian Theatre is currently producing “Master Harold”…and the Boys by Athol Fugard. “Master Harold” is a white, South African teenager. “The Boys” are two Black South African servants to his household, who have cared for him since birth. Master Harold comes to the café, owned by his family, where “The Boys” now work.
On the surface, the relationship between Master Harold (affectionately called Hally), and Sam and Willie (“The Boys”) is sincere and affectionate. Sam in particular sees himself as Hally’s mentor, a substitute for his drunken, chronically-ill, absentee father. The hatred and contempt that are the inevitable consequence of systemic racial oppression are ultimately exposed.
“Master Harold”…and the Boys was first produced in 1985, and is set in the 1950s, two years after the imposition of apartheid in South Africa. Playwright Athol Fugard is a white South African who has been critically acclaimed for his anti-apartheid theatrical work. This particular play was made into a television movie in 1985, staring Mathew Broderick. A 2010 South African production of the play, which stared Freddie Highmore and Ving Rhames, was also made into a film.
Though Obsidian Theatre “is passionately dedicated to the exploration, development, and production of the Black voice”, unfortunately this play was very poorly received by myself, my companion, and the two women who were coincidentally seated adjacent to us, all of whom were Black. Conversely, the play appeared to be very well received by the majority of the predominantly white audience.
As the title of the work suggests, the play centralizes the voice of young Harold. The pain that whites inflict upon themselves by maintaining power and privilege is a key theme. In an era where #nowhitetears is a hashtag, it was difficult for me to understand how this play was deemed to be consistent with Obsidian’s mandate. I decided to ask Philip Akin, the company’s Artistic Director, and the Director of this production, just that before writing my review.
Akin, who is also Black, was of the opinion that the fact that I am a member of the hashtag generation is a part of why we have such different reactions to the work. I am old enough to remember the end of apartheid in South Africa, with vague recollections of media reports on a handful of turbulent years leading up to that. Akin, on the other hand, remembers apartheid while growing up in Oshawa in the 1950s. Akin met Fugard once in the 1970s, and remembers him as a man “burning with passion against the apartheid system.” According to Akin, the play, and Fugard’s work in general is part of the canon of Black theatre, because Fugard can be credited with “bringing the fight against apartheid to the stage.” The story is based on Fugard’s own experiences in his youth, and according to Akin, is very much “a play of atonement, of grace.”
I asked Akin why he felt it was important to show work that focuses on white pain stemming from their own racism. At the play’s climax, when Harold’s entrenched racism becomes blatantly and traumatically apparent, Sam and Willie, who are both extremely subservient, appear more concerned for Harold than they are for themselves. In Akin’s view, anything that brutalizes people has an impact on them as they continue their lives. People like Harold, or those who support Trump “are paying a cost as human beings. That level of hatred and malice has got to scar your soul.”
While I found that action dragged through much of play, the climax was riveting, despite my extreme discomfort. James Daley as Harold, Allan Louis as Willie, and Andre Sills as Sam, all gave captivating and consummate performances during the play’s emotional conclusion. Akin said that “to do the play truthfully and fully, there is a cost to both black and white actor” during the rehearsal process. “The actors have to go to some dark places, or the play doesn’t work.”
I did not like the play, and I think there is a lot of other, lesser-known work out there that does a better job of centralizing the Black voice and experience. That being said, I do not think that liking the play is really the point. Whether you like it or not, the play will definitely start a provocative and important conversation.
- “Master Harold”…and the Boys is playing until October 23, 2016 at Toronto Centre for the Arts, (5040 Yonge Street,
- Show times are October 15, 18-22, at 8 PM, with additional matinees on October 15, 22, and 23 at 2 PM
- Tickets are $29.50.
- Tickets are available online
Show poster courtesy of the company.