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By Jack Kneessy
Kansas City Actors Theatre is preparing for their third production of Season 15, Athol Fugard’s partly-autobiographical “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys.” The award-winning play addresses race relations in early Apartheid-era South Africa through the relationship between the white teenaged Hally and the two black men that work in his parents’ teahouse, Sam and Willie. Actors Khalif J. Gillett (Willie) and Arthur Clifford (Hally) discuss stepping into their roles, the play and its playwright, and assuring the theatre space is safe to explore potentially-volatile topics like race relations.
What was your first experience with Master Harold …and the Boys?
Arthur: My first experience with the show was actually in a script analysis class back in college. In that time, we got the opportunity to read the script and discuss its themes and historical context. I fell in love with the story immediately and jumped at the chance to audition for it at KCAT!
Khalif: My first experience was actually seeing Walter looking through the script in the KC Rep green room while we were doing “A Christmas Carol.” I wasn’t even sure what the play was or what it was about, but I was like, ‘Hey, I’d love to work with Walter again and get to learn a new play I have no preconceived notions about!’
Is there a part of the process you’re looking forward to most?
Arthur: I’m especially looking forward to working on the “Men of Magnitude” scene. (Where the two discuss historically-important figures.) I adore its playfulness, and you really get a firsthand look at the deep bond that Hally has with both Sam and Willie.
Khalif: I am looking forward to exploring a character that is seen more than heard. This character spends a lot of time in the background listening more than speaking and I’m interested to get to build this whole internal arc and journey. I particularly enjoy the first table read, because it’s exciting to hear the voices that will bring these characters to life for the first time. I also enjoy the point when scripts can finally leave hands and we can just play.
In this play there are several moments of high intensity. What is it like to work on this kind of text and how do you maintain a rehearsal space where everyone feels comfortable?
Arthur: I know that it is going to be especially difficult for me, as the lone Caucasian actor, but in order to maintain that safe environment, I just want to know and love both my fellow actors and directors on a deep level so that when we leave, we know that everything that happens on that stage is not real.
Khalif: I’m honestly not sure how to deal with this yet. I’ve done several plays in the past few years that deal with race relations and ugly moments, and it doesn’t get any easier. People often times don’t handle actors of colors with enough delicateness or respect during these processes, or simply can’t see how working on these kinds of things can be mortifying; specifically, in a theatre community like Kansas City where you can be the only (or one of very few) faces of color in a room full of white people, and expected to put your pain on display. It’s not always just acting. Sometimes these pieces hit a real nerve.
What do you want audiences to take away from seeing this production of Master Harold …and the Boys?
Khalif: I want people to take away the idea that hatred is taught, and no one is born hateful. We must make an active effort to change the mistakes of our parents and ancestors that inherently live within us.
Arthur: What I want audiences to take away from seeing this production is its unfortunate relevance today. I want to spark a conversation between audience members. While we have made significant strides in our perception of racial equality, in what ways can we take a step back and recognize some possible embedded prejudices or tendencies that we still hold today? I think putting this play on today is extremely important, and I hope its message will resonate as much today as it did upon its release.
Khalif and Arthur alongside Walter Coppage (Sam) in “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys,” running through September 29 at the City Stage Theatre in Union Station. More information and tickets at kcactors.org/shows/master-harold-and-the-boys/ or by calling the Central Ticket Office at (816) 235-6222.
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