There aren’t a lot of famous people who actor and director L. Peter Callender would like to meet. Actress Halle Berry is on that list, along with President Barack Obama and ballet dancer Misty Copeland. And then there’s South African playwright Athol Fugard. Callender, who is starring in Fugard’s “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys at the Aurora Theatre, says he first encountered Fugard’s work when he was a student at Juilliard, and performed in “Boesman and Lena.” Since then, he’s been in six of the Fugard’s plays. Callender calls the playwright a genius and says “Master Harold”, set in 1950 South Africa under apartheid and based on an event in Fugard’s life when he was young illustrates that genius.
[jump] “His characters are passionate, true people — real people in real situations and he sets this up so beautifully,” Callender said. “You don’t see what’s coming. You see people enjoying themselves and having conversations and then it just explodes with passion and lyricism and truth. It just blows up, and you don’t see it coming.”
In the play, one of Fugard’s best known, there are only three characters–a teenage white boy, Hally, based on Fugard, and two servants: Sam, who Callender plays, and Willie. Fugard has a reputation for writing about social justice issues without being polemic. Callender thinks he can do that by keeping the focus on relationships.
“He’s just such a genius — he doesn’t preach, he just tells the stories of these real people,” Callender said. “He’s not attacking apartheid. He doesn’t say this is a horrible thing and you have to hate it. He just comes in and says, ‘Look, these are three people who live in this world, and this is what their lives are like in this situation.’”
Putting extensive preparation into his roles is something Callender is known for. When he played the Robert Mugabe in the Aurora’s “Breakfast With Mugabe,” he read everything about the president of Zimbabwe and watched YouTube videos on him so he could get his gestures, movements and way of speech down. Apparently, it worked. One night Callender found a man waiting for him after the show who had been Mugabe’s lawyer. He told Callender it was eerie how much he resembled Mugabe.
This role is different. Though Sam was based on a real person, he definitely wasn’t as documented. But Callender is thinking about who Sam was — specifically who he was to Fugard and reading Fugard’s book, Tsotsi. This kind of preparation is one reason Callender is such a wonderful actor, says Adrian Roberts, who plays Willie in “Master Harold,” appeared in “Breakfast With Mugabe,” and was directed by Callender recently in a play in Florida. Working with him is a joy, Roberts said.
“I’d seen his work and passed him at auditions and heard about how great he was – passionate and dedicated and disciplined,” Roberts said. “I played a bodyguard in “Mugabe,” so the nature of my role was an observer and I got to listen and watch every night. I learned a lot. Peter cares a lot about what he does.”
Working again with Callender, the two men have gotten to talk more, and have discovered they share something besides their profession — they’re both from Trinidad.
“It’s a bond we share,” Roberts said. “That tickled me the most of everything. He’s a wealth of information and has done a lot of stuff. It’s just fun to be around somebody like that. You can get your characters in this work. Not that Peter and I don’t have our quirks, but with him it’s about putting your head down and going to work.”
For Andrew Humann, a 22-year-old in the role of the 17-year-old Hally, working with Callender and Roberts, who he calls “head honchos” in the Bay Area theater scene, felt intimidating at first. But now he’s caught up in how much he’s learning.
“He’s really good at using language,” he said about Callender. “I’ve noticed he maximizes the amount of juice, for lack of a better word, in every line. I’ve got a lot of words to say, and my first instinct is to rush through a line. He doesn’t — he takes his time.”
Roberts calls the play timeless and brilliant.
“All we need to do is tell the story,” he said. “The playwright has done all the work.”
Like Shakespeare, every word is there for a reason, Humann says. For Callender, the artistic director of San Francisco’s African American Shakespeare Company, Fugard’s work is timeless like Shakespeare’s.
“I do think his work is classic,” Callender said. “His work is historical and makes clear references to the diminishment to a person’s soul under apartheid.”
“Master Harold” . . . and the Boys opens on June 23 (previews begin June 17) and runs through July 17 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, $35-$60, 510-843-4822.