The Bunbury Theatre’s current offering, “Master Harold and the Boys,” is a worthy production of a difficult and important play.
It also is a production that puts something of an exclamation point on a phenomenon we — finally — have been seeing in Louisville theater: a serious local presence from University of Louisville’s African-American Theatre Program, as well as the entire Theatre Arts Department.
Nonprofits and arts organizations spent decades in their own little silos, and in recent years we have seen a great spring thaw, with the Louisville Ballet, LVA, the Louisville Orchestra and many others creeping out from their entrenchments to work together.
It has reaped bounteous dividends for audiences, no place more so than Louisville’s independent theater scene. Looking for Lilith is about to open a show featuring a UofL student, Theatre  has worked with students and professors, as has The Bard’s Town. And UofL graduate Crystian Wiltshire has become an increasingly central cast member at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.
Bunbury’s “Master Harold” is helmed by UofL professor and head of graduate acting program Baron Kelly, with lighting and set design from UofL’s resident scenic, lighting and projection designer and department chair Kevin Gawley. The three-person cast features two recent graduates from the program, Tyler Madden and Cameron Murphy.
Kudos to professors like Kelly and Gawley for encouraging and joining that outreach, and kudos to Bunbury Producing Artistic Director Juergen K. Tossmann for taking the opportunity and turning it into a fine play.
Enough big picture.
The action occurs in a single location, a candy shop in South Africa, in roughly 90 minutes of uninterrupted real time, set in the 1950s. This play, script by Athol Fugard, won multiple awards when it hit the stage back in the early ’80s. The script has so many things going for it, one hardly knows where to begin, but perhaps its greatest asset, which is easily mined by a good director and solid actors, is the power imbalance at play onstage.
Sam (Clyde Tyrone Harper) is an aging employee and servant who has spent many years working for Master Harold’s (Cameron Murphy) father. They are joined by Willie (Tyler Madden), a younger servant who has nevertheless spent many years similarly employed.
Harold is a young teenager who sought out Sam and Willie for his entire formative years, looking for attention and love. The age dynamic would suggest Sam as the patriarch, Willie as a younger authority figure, and Harold as the junior most member of the triad, and there are many times when that’s how their interactions play out.
But as a white person in apartheid South Africa, Harold is automatically assigned higher status and power by society.
The discrepancy between the two, and the strong emotions that arise from the specific circumstances of the 90 minutes to which the audience is privy, drive a regular day to a climax that will have a lifelong impact on all the characters.
Kelly does an excellent job injecting humor throughout, which makes the moments of tension, with which Kelly is equally skilled, pack more punch when they arrive. He keeps the pace brisk but still allows moments of everyday silence to enter scenes, which further grounds the action, cementing its place in a day that could have been completely unremarkable.
As Sam, Harper easily brings honesty and humanity to his character — but almost as importantly he brings flaws. In his interactions with Madden’s Willie, we see Sam’s tendency to ill-advisedly push things too far. In making these moments real, Harper makes the pathos and gravitas of other moments feel not only real, but even exceptional.
It allows Sam to avoid the “great man held down by society” trope that, even when pointing to real injustice, can make for a two-dimensional character.
Willie spends a lot of time supporting Sam, and Madden does an excellent job of knowing when to give focus and when to take it. Many of his big moments are comedic ones, and Madden plays it broadly and wholeheartedly.
Those moments when Sam’s emotional life does take the spotlight, Madden imbues Willie with a stillness that shows his comedy is a shield against the humiliation he must regularly endure. Madden’s Willie has adopted the strategy of mocking himself, so when whites from the ruling and abusive class do the same, he can pretend it doesn’t hurt.
Murphy’s Master Harold is serviceable, but he doesn’t quite endow Harold with the depth and levels that Madden and Harper bring to their characters.
This is an excellent production of a masterful script. I truly hope we continue to see Kelly, Gawley and the other professors and students at UofL continue to reach out into the community and help usher quality work onto our stages.
“Master Harold and the Boys” continues through June 24 at the Henry Clay Theatre, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $22, or $10 for students.