Archive for October, 2019

Review – “Master Harold and the Boys” and “The Ice Cream Boys” – National and Jermyn Street Theaters

October 18, 2019

To understand South Africa, I think there is much to be said for understanding the works of Athol Fugard; and to enjoy “The Ice Cream Boys,” I think it is good to know the history of South Africa. “Master Harold and the Boys” is, in fact, a perfect set up to understand a play about the modern condition of South Africa, in which freedom has been won but so little equality has been achieved. In “Master Harold,” currently showing at the National, we are faced with a situation of incredible inequality, where two grown men have to bow and scrape before a teenaged boy who’s power over them is less about the fact that they work for his mother and more about the color of his skin. The play teases out both the incredible humanity that could exist between the races in this situation and the incredible inhumanity that the entire structure of apartheid enforced; it is a beautiful piece of theater, very touching, and Lucien Msamati gives a masterful performance as ballroom dancing champion Sam. Its hour and forty minutes is worth it to the last drop.

The apartheid government kept this play from being staged, but forty years later things in South Africa are very different. In “The Ice Cream Boys,” currently playing at thte Jermyn Street Theatre, Gail Louw puts Jacob Zuma (Andrew Francis), fourth president of South Africa, in a hospital room with white Ronnie Kasrils (Jack Klaff), and a different kind of power play spins out. Zuma and Kasrils fought together to liberate South Africa, but Kasrils sees Zuma as a traitor to the cause of equality. Zuma, meanwhile, sees Kasrils as a traitor to himself – he once saw him as a brother, but Kasrils has taken actions to directly discredit Zuma.

As they recount their history together, the nurse (Bu Kunene) appears several times playing other people in South Africa – Mandela, Zuma’s uncle – giving other people’s views on Zuma’s life. But in the end, fending off Zuma’s play for her and also giving her own opinions, she delivers a cutting analysis of how this president is seen by the people he was meant to serve – as selfish and out of touch with what is needed to make South Africa flourish.

While I had been hoping for a much more ramped up interaction between the two men, I found this way of learning about South Africa’s history in the years SINCE “Master Harold” very interesting. Francis is magnetic and self assured, while Klaff seems believably like someone who once carried a machine gun to make a revolution happen. But somehow the impact is not as strong as I’d hoped for, I think because Kasrils’ work in the security services to me implicated him in other kinds of crimes against South Africa. Perhaps he only rose to power once the ANC was in; but I doubt that his behavior was as high minded as this play makes it.

Overall, my recommendation is to see both plays while they’re on; they paint a fascinating picture of a country with a troubled past and an unclear present.

(Master Harold and the Boys is on at the National Theater until December 17th; The Ice Cream Boys is on at Jermyn Street until November 2nd.)