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Myth of the 'magic black man' shatters in Shaw's 'Master Harold'

Philip Akin does not believe in "magic black people."

So the plays he directs for Toronto Obsidian Theatre Company, the Shaw Festival and elsewhere avoid the simplistic characterizations of black men and women so common in Hollywood or on Broadway.

"I call it the 'magification problem,' " said Akin, whose sterling 2016 production of Athol Fugard's play "Master Harold... And the Boys" opens a four-day run in Shea's 710 Theatre on Feb. 15. "When it comes to black guys or black women, it's like they have to be perfect and wise and forgiving and knowing."

That is precisely the way Willie and Sam, two older black characters in "Master Harold," initially struck Akin. So he set out to fix that problem in his production, which more equally distributes the dramatic and emotional weight among three characters whose lives are treated as anything but equal.

Gone are the magic black men, replaced with human beings as imperfect as the men who inspired Fugard to write the play.

The one-act play, set in apartheid-era South Africa in 1952, concerns the relationship between Hally, a young white man, and two black employees of the café his parents own. The tour of the show, which recently stopped in Montreal, features the same cast as Shaw's 2016 production: Allan Louis as Willie, André Sills as Sam and James Daly as Hally.

The men serve as father figures for Hally, whose own father is battling alcoholism. But their friendship cannot escape the cruelty of the apartheid state, and "Master Harold" forces audiences to watch that friendship crash from racial injustice. It is Fugard's attempt to reconcile two irreconcilable things: Hallie's apparently deep love for his black mentors and a system of racial oppression that encourages and even demands his cruelty toward them.

'Master Harold' evokes something past heartbreak

For Akin, the play can only work if Sam and Willie are presented in three dimensions. While other directors may have chosen to turn those characters into saints, Akin has gone the other way.

"Oftentimes, I get to a part in the play and there's an option to go down that road, and I usually say, 'You know what? I think the brother be pissed,' " Akin said in a phone interview from Toronto. "I think he's a human being. I think he's upset here. And I know this sounds weird, but oftentimes I feel like black characters don't get portrayed as fully human."

While the play may seem far removed from the realities of race in North America, its exploration of systemic racism bears many lessons in mid-renaissance Buffalo, which remains one of the most segregated cities in the United States.

For Akin, learning about the power dynamic in South Africa helps audiences forge a direct path to understanding contemporary challenges with race.

"If you understand what those two guys go through, you can understand the [African National Congress] and you can understand the civil war that happened in South Africa," Akin said. "If you can understand that, you can understand the same impetus and impulses anywhere, because people will not live with that kind of fundamental systemic oppression without it blowing up at some point."

"Master Harold... And the Boys"

Runs Feb. 15 to 18 in Shea's 710 Theatre, 710 Main St. Tickets are $44. Call 847-0850 or visit sheas.org.

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