I don’t know if the world-renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard has ever met the Jamaican-born, New York-raised pop icon Grace Jones. If not, they should meet. Fugard, whose 1982 hit Master Harold and the Boys is receiving a well-acted revival at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, might have an interesting conversation with Jones, the slippery subject of The Grace Jones Project, a fascinating little exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) in San Francisco.
Both Fugard and Jones were striking figures in early-to-mid-1980’s America. They played a crucial role in the cultural ferment that bloomed in opposition to the ascending conservative movement and Ronald Reagan’s presidency. They were messengers from other worlds -- specifically, apartheid South Africa and the burgeoning underground club scene of New York. And they proved difficult to assimilate.
In 2016, the Aurora Theatre Company and MOAD return to the 80’s and make strong cases for the continuing relevance of these artists. As one might imagine, their attempts are tricky, complex, and full of pitfalls.
Athol Fugard sums up and shuts down
Master Harold is very much a play of culmination. Fugard had been writing complex, vexed, experimental pieces about South Africa for over two decades. By the late 70's Anti-Apartheid rallies had begun to multiply on American campuses and would continue to grow throughout the 80's; Nelson Mandela was well on his way to folk hero status (and as we now know much more), and Fugard's work was being critically lauded around the world for its artistry, daring, and political commitment. And so the time felt right for change, which must have put tremendous pressure on Fugard to do his part to keep the movement going.
You can feel it in the careful imagery of Master Harold. The play ends with two black workers, Sam and Willie, waltzing in an empty restaurant. They have been humiliated and come close to attacking young Harold, who is white, 16, and suffering from a world of problems. In a just society, this boy shouldn’t have any power over these men. But in 1950's South Africa, he can command them, even confidently spit in their faces without fear.
Fugard uses the structure of the bildungsroman -- a young adult's journey to maturity and entrance into the real world -- to get at the origins and ongoing brutality of apartheid. When Harold acts the master around Sam and Willie we wince at his pretension and the society that would allow him to get away with it. He thwacks Willie with a ruler and asks, “How the hell am I supposed to concentrate with the two of you acting like bloody children?” Or the way he constantly chides Sam (clearly the true father in his life) to not “get clever" every time he gets tense about his own intellectual shortcomings.
Harold's journey into adulthood is obviously more fraught because of South Africa -- the world he’s coming into is corrupt all the way to the center of its rancid, beating heart. Yet, curiously, that deadens and flattens our response to the injustices in front of us. The play’s ability to produce liberal gasps of censure is one of its principle weaknesses. Unlike Fugard's earlier plays, like Blood Knot (1961), and Boseman and Lena (1969), which find new, complex ways to capture the twisted lives of South Africans of every color and hue, Master Harold feels just too canned and easy. Even Aurora's beautifully acted and directed production can't make up for the drama's shortcomings, though it does take us back to the moment when a play like this felt necessary.
Grace Jones is a big, ferocious flower
It is entirely possible that you could have visited New York in 1982, gone and seen Master Harold on Broadway, and then found your way to a Grace Jones concert. It would have made for a rather contradictory sense of the dramatic possibilities of blackness -- an early-to-mid-80’s primer on just how far America was willing to think about race.
Whereas Fugard was summing up and shutting down, Jones was a big, ferocious flower just beginning to bloom. Whether the pop star and fashion icon ever fully blossomed is one of the unanswered yet fascinating questions of The Grace Jones Project. Watch the series of videos playing in a loop at MOAD and you begin to understand how dynamic and apt the word “Project” is for Jones, and maybe for us as well.
She is never anything less than fully present. And yet there’s something missing beneath Jones' dazzling mystique; as if points A and Z were bright stars, but the rest of the alphabet had gone missing. In the video for her hit, “Pull up the Bumper,” she floats above and merges with the traffic of New York, fusing with the city in ways that are both mystical and mechanical. It’s impossible to tell whether she’s human, ghost, or automaton.
Here’s a black woman who seems to have slipped beyond race and gender while fully embracing it -- a persona so vibrantly present she could be a logo. And yet at the same time Jones is completely mysterious and elusive. The video for “Slave to the Rhythm” catches Jones at her most uncanny, and its last image of a feigned suicide is comic and terrifying. Jones’ embrace of the world feels utopian -- an impossibility that we’re somehow witnessing -- and so it isn’t surprising that it might tend towards self-destruction.
And depressingly that’s where the most fascinating pieces in The Grace Jones Project land. In a show that celebrates Jones as a cultural force, it’s clear that following in her path is hazardous or the work of a saint. Harold Offeh’s minute-long video, Arabesque, After Grace Jones (1989), recreates Jones’ crazy pose from the cover of Island Life. His comic take on his own physical limitations only highlights how astounding Jones could be, even in stillness. She is always beyond our abilities.
Wangechi Mutu’s short video, Eat Cake, is perhaps the most disturbing piece in the MOAD show. A young woman in pseudo Victorian dress scrunches down over a chocolate cake and crudely eats it. It’s no more than eight seconds, looped, and possesses the anxious disgust of a horror movie. Like Jones, Mutu's concerns are a product of race and gender, but her mind seems to have transcended them to take on the vastness of the world. She’s doing her own thing, and whatever that thing is it’s freeing -- if not the sure path to annihilation.
And in the end that’s what Fugard and Jones were after: a way to overcome the incredible limitations of the world and find a way to freedom. It is a project. One that eludes Fugard’s best intentions in Master Harold, and proves elusive and daunting for the many artists of The Grace Jones Project who dare to follow in Jones' liberating steps.
Master Harold and the Boys plays through Saturday, Jul. 23 at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information please click here.
The Grace Jones Project runs through Sunday, Sep. 18 at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. For tickets and information please click here.