Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Ruling Class

By Chris Davis

MAY 4, 1998: 

Master Harold … and the Boys

Take away the airplanes, the trains, and trolley cars. Remove the telephones and the traffic. Unplug the radios and turn off the factories and listen to see if you can hear the sound of rags being wrung into buckets of water. It is a sound that goes on virtually unnoticed around the clock in every corner of the world. It is a sound as old as civilization.

This simple aural signifier, coupled with the image of a black man, wearing the formal livery of a waiter, on his knees with his arms submerged to the elbows in a mop bucket, begins Athol Fugard’s much-lauded indictment against South African racism and apartheid, Master Harold … and the Boys. Fugard’s deceptively simple conversation between young, white Master Harold and “the boys” has lost none of its impact since the fall of apartheid, and gains a special resonance when performed in Memphis, where racial tensions still run high. Fugard clearly demonstrates that racism is not the sole property of the ignorant, and neither is it perpetuated by the ravings of isolated groups that make hate their religion. Racism requires no laws to enforce it; neither can laws prevent it. Fugard’s racism is the terrible secret that has been whispered to the bellies of virgins by noble men of conquering stock (read “nice boys from good families”) since the first slave dipped a rag in the bucket.

When a celebrated piece of politically charged theatre is performed by a liberal-minded theatre company for a like-minded theatregoing audience whose beliefs already closely mirror the more obvious moral sentiments of the play … well, it looses its oomph. It turns into a football game where everyone is cheering for the home team. These are momma’s old-fashioned fixin’s for deadly theatre, and the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre’s production of Master Harold … and the Boys often teeters on the brink of becoming a deadly theatre experience, but is ultimately redeemed by the honesty of the performances and the potency of Fugard’s language.

Alex Cooke, TC Sharpe, and Tony Anderson in the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre production of Master Harold … and the Boys.
As Sam and Willie, T.C. Sharpe and Tony Anderson work well together. Their quibbles over the finer points of ballroom dancing call to mind the dilemma-plagued banter of Beckett’s tramps; however, their tremendous formality is closer in spirit to those excruciatingly well-mannered chipmunks of cartoon fame. Even as Willie embarks on a hateful, “fuck that”-laden speech proclaiming his dance (and presumably life) partner a “whore,” it manages to seem strangely – and falsely – polite. These early moments, which Sam and Willie share alone together, are crucial to the play’s success. When Harold enters, there must be a distinct change in tone. Harold has been – against his parent’s best advisement – overly friendly with Willie and Sam for years, but he is also the play’s lone representative of the white ruling class. The word apartheid is never mentioned once throughout the play – it must, therefore, be sensed in every action that occurs from the moment Harold comes in from the rain, and in this production it is not.

In the role of Sam, TC Sharpe depends on his considerable charisma, which is an infinitely watchable disappointment. Sharpe plays Sam as a loveable smoothie and for the most part he makes it work, but he misses the crushing desperation of a grown man willing to swallow his dignity for the formal blessing of a child. Sharpe is a formidable performer who never stops growing with a role, however, and on opening night there were definite indications that he hadn’t quite gotten his legs yet.

Alex Cooke’s Master Harold captures the eagerness of a young mind filled with romantic notions. Harold crows about social progress and real change while constantly reminding Willie and Sam that the boss’ son is still the boss. In his youthful enthusiasm for all things progressive, Harold has managed to somehow reconcile Marx and Darwin, and when he commands Willie and Sam to “act [their] age,” Cooke reconciles the absolute authority of a conqueror with the innocence of a young man trying to do the right thing. Though intelligently rendered, Cooke’s overall performance is a bit stiff. His British accent wanders all over the place, and disappears entirely in his best moments. The dialect is a distraction to the audience, and could be dropped altogether. No one would miss it.

Willie is a simple man with one big dream left in him, and Tony Anderson plays him to near perfection. Willie seems happy with, or at least resigned to, his servile role. His expressed aspirations don’t include equality or social progress. Willie wants to be a ballroom champion, and thinks he could be if his partner hadn’t run away. The role of Willie is the least showy of the three characters, and Anderson measures up to one of an actor’s greatest challenges – to remain intrinsically involved in the action without having to speak.

The mostly well-conceived performances of Sharpe and Cooke deteriorate into misty-eyed monotony as the play draws to a close. An ocean of tears does not add up to a tidy resolution. This isn’t Driving Miss Daisy, and there are not going to be any declarations of friendship from Harold – it’s not in the script, but then again, neither is the brief tribal dance Willie and Sam perform. Much effort has been made to enhance the dignity of “the boys,” and mitigate the bigotry of Master Harold. Although that may seem like the right thing to do, it reduces the power of the play a thousandfold. This is not, by any stretch, a “feel-good” play, and the only glimmer of hope at its end is Willie’s realization that the first step toward entering the collision-free world of a ballroom champion is not to beat your partner.

Noises Off

The British farce Noises Off, like all British farce, is nothing without velocity and exactitude.Theatre Memphis’ current production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is not consistently up to the rigorous demands of the genre; overall, what’s missing is the slickness of spontaneity, a critical sense that the crazed proceedings are truly unfolding before us. However, there are enough dead-on, perfectly executed – at times even inspired – moments to make the evening worthwhile.

The piece is an acerbic, yet indulgently fond, backstage story send-up of the theatrical art, generally, and of actors, specifically: the egos, the camaraderie (both genuine and false), the potential for sharing a large vision, the dire pettiness and utter lack of objectivity, the uses and abuses of a craft dedicated to the willful confusion of truth with illusion.

The first act of Noises Off involves an indifferently talented troupe of actors trying to get up a production of a silly sex-comedy, Nothing On, set in an English country house. Under-rehearsed and tripping over their thespic shortcomings with missed cues, faulty entrances, and moronic questions, the ragged band includes all the basic stock types, played in the TM production by Jenn Welch, Brian Mott, Brett D. Cullum, Jack Kendall, Ann G. Sharp, and Jeanna Juleson. Art Oden plays the stage manager, Louise Casini the assistant director, and Hugh Fraser the director. In the second act, we view the company from backstage after they have taken the show on tour. That they manage at all is the crux of the comedy here, since by this point all their pent-up hostilities have begun to ignite into bitter internecine sniping and petty sabotage.

As the director at his wit’s end, Fraser is superb. Some of the actors, especially Cullum and Mott, occasionally come close to the tone and pace needed to make Frayn’s farce cook; but it is the technical superiority of Fraser’s vocal and physical performance – and the hilarious truth of his deeply British desperation – that really lend cachet to this Theatre Memphis production. – Hadley Hury

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