On a steamy June afternoon in the hazy green hills of East Calais, three actors rehearse a play set in South Africa a half century ago. The shade of the barn-theater provides some relief from the sultry weather, but the heat is on the performers with opening night of Athol Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys less than a week away. No Nunsense here. Unadilla Theatre is also staging Fugard's The Island as part of its six-play summer season.
Fugard is a white South African who uses drama to explore the morally corrosive effects of apartheid. Although he has steered away from writing overtly political "message plays," his work earned him constant government harassment, and some of the black actors he employed were jailed. More than politics, Fugard focuses tightly on people: how systemic racism undermined relationships and damaged the human spirit.
Director Bill Blachly has been a Fugard fan since he saw an early production of Master Harold in London 20 years ago, just after he had founded his Vermont theater company -- named for the "Unadilla Silo Company" logo emblazoned on the barn rafters. He and longtime companion Ann O'Brien travel to England every winter to get inspiration for Unadilla's summer repertory.
"My rule is, the audience should either go out in gales of laughter or in tears, but they shouldn't just walk out," Blachly says. Or, "They should walk out stunned, and I would say that that's what Master Harold did. It was a stunner." He came home and put it on at Unadilla, and has directed other Fugard works there over the years.
Are these plays relevant today? Apartheid is dead, and the history of race relations in the Green Mountains is nothing like that of South Africa.
Well, it sure hasn't gotten any easier over the years to find black actors in Vermont. Master Harold is the story of a white South African boy's bond with the two black servants who have been a surrogate family to him, and The Island is about two black men imprisoned on South Africa's infamous Robben Island. The director needed two black actors who would be able to take on two large parts each.
Blachly used to travel to New York and Boston to conduct auditions, but he discovered that big-city performers without cars had trouble coping with the isolation of East Calais once they arrived. Unadilla offers out-of-town professionals summer housing on the rambling farm the Blachlys bought nearly 50 years ago. "They get up here and the silence is overwhelming," he observes.
Happy accident led him to Edgar L. Davis, an experienced actor and recent transplant to Hardwick: Blachly's son met Davis at a party this winter, and put director and actor in touch. Daniel Drew of Barre, a newly minted St. Michael's College grad and Unadilla veteran, was already set to take on Master Harold's white role. But the second black part remained vacant until one month before rehear-sals began. A small notice posted on a Dartmouth drama department bulletin board finally yielded a call from Ronald McCants, a theater and engineering double major with an impressive theatrical resume.
All's well that ends well, as another playwright once said. The late afternoon run-through of Master Harold showed that the talented cast has gelled, despite the casting cliffhanger and the wilting heat. Davis, 42, plays Sam with a combination of laconic reserve and paternal authority. McCants, 21, captures Willie's mood swings between eagerness and petulance. As the conflicted Hally, Drew, 22, struggles to define his relationship with his lifelong black companions.
Drew, who was born and raised in Vermont, is definitely exploring new territory in his new role. He recalls he never saw a black person until he first traveled to New York City. But he would hear old-timers' offhanded racist comments without really understanding them. "And it's always from really nice folks, and it makes it seem like it's OK when it really isn't . . . The language can perpetuate an atmosphere . . . We don't even know what we're doing."
Both Davis and McCants grew up in Missouri. When McCants compares his experiences to those of his parents, he finds that racism today is "more under the rug." While studying at Dartmouth and interning on Wall Street, he has found the comments more subtle, the discrimination more oblique. "It's embedded in our culture; it's embedded in our society. You only can get so far as a black man."
Blachly, 81, is blunt -- as he is on most topics -- about the state of race relations. "Certainly we're just as racist as we've ever been. It's just changed its shape a little bit." However, as a director, "the more I've done Fugard, the more I realized that it really isn't so much about race . . . It's really about power: who has power, and who doesn't have power, and how the powerful ones react to power -- very often negatively for themselves, not even to their best interests. And of course it certainly isn't to the best interest of the powerless."
Davis concurs. "It's about people, and people are never going to change. There's always going to be somebody trying to get over on somebody else. And there's always going to be someone who is going to be privileged and not understand what somebody else feels."
The Island is a pure distillation of power relationships: two men incarcerated by an unjust government and subject to the capricious whims of sadistic jailers. Davis and McCants play prisoners John and Winston, who are preparing to perform Sophocles' Antigone -- itself a commentary on state power run amok -- for their fellow inmates. Fugard and actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona wrote the play collaboratively in 1973, inspired by Nelson Mandela's own production of Antigone as a Robben Island resident.
"You can't have a metaphor clearer for power and powerlessness than in a prison," says Blachly. "We see powerful and powerless people all around, and I feel powerless myself, and I don't like the people that are guarding me . . . You don't have to be a prisoner to appreciate it." He shakes his unruly white mane for emphasis, and his reedy voice gets even edgier. "When the whole country is in the clutches of loonies who have total power? Relevance? You bet."
In The Island, McCants sees not just the raw exercise of power, but also its perversion by the state. He cites a book he read about police mistreatment of children on Chicago's South Side. "These kids are supposed to believe in the law, but how can you do that when you have someone who is supposed to be in authority, someone who is supposed to be right, doing the wrong?"
"So who's policing the police, who's watching the watchers?" asks Davis. Like most black men his age, he has been pulled over by the cops just because of his race. "The older I get, the less I want to be in a situation where something's about to happen and I'm the only black person there. Because I know when they show up, it's going to be about me. It doesn't matter what anybody else is doing; they're going to see me first."
Can an evening of theater offer any hope? Does art have any power to bring about social change? As a dissident playwright, Fugard himself believed it did. In 1989, when his country was on the cusp of overthrowing apartheid, he said: "Art has a role. Art is at work in South Africa. But art works subterraneously. It's never the striking, superficial cause and effect people would like to see. Art goes underground into people's dreams and surfaces months later in strange, unexpected actions."
Ultimately, the reason to come see Master Harold and
The Island is not about racism, power, relevance, or social change. It is to experience strong stories, well told, that illuminate the human condition. Blachly cites the old Hollywood bromide: "What was it Sam Goldwyn said? 'If I want to send a message, I call Western Union.' I think a great play stands on its own."
MaineVisitor: After seeing the performance yesterday I can say with utter certainty that it was political-religious propaganda and nothing…
DeeBee: Thanks for this great, in-depth piece, Ken. This answers many questions I've had about this group and performance…