From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media watch: Fine acting bolsters strong scripts for both stage, film

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 8, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

In October of 1981 my sister and I were visiting New York City. It was the first night the new movie Chariots of Fire was playing in a theater. Even though the line was long we somehow made it into the packed theater. Obviously, people in that audience were not familiar with the movie as they would be now. When the opening credits came on as the Scottish runners ran along the beach near St. Andrews the audience heard the music for the first time. As the opening scene drew to a close and the music that was to become very famous ended the audience burst into thunderous applause. It was the kind of moment that sticks in your memory.

On a Sunday in January of this year I joined friends at the Civic Theatre’s production of Master Harold ... and the Boys. For me, toward the end of the play when all the currents of plot came together with an incredible climax, I felt I had just witnessed a moment to remember.

In fairness I must admit that before the play I learned that the part of 18-year-old Hally, a white South African of English descent, was played by Benjamin Evans. From 1985-1988 I was stationed at the parish of St. Mary in Chewelah, where Ben was a four- or five-year-old parishioner.

Playwright Athol Fugard sets his play in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. Hally, the son of the owners of St. George’s Park Tea Room, arrives after school to do some homework and await news of his father, who is in hospital. Two Blacks who work at the Tea Room are cleaning up and preparing the tables for the next day’s service. Sam (Bryan R. Jackson) is the head waiter and Willie (David Casteal) is washing the floor.

Hally, a rather bright young man, is good friends with Sam and Willie. He has grown up with them. Early in the play they are all like family. There is lots of humor and fond memories of their lives together.

Hally involves them in his school work. He shares ideas with them. One of Hally’s wonderful memories is when Sam took him kite flying in a park. All of a sudden Hally remembered that Sam had disappeared right after the kite was in the air.

As the play progresses Hally is upset because his invalid father is coming home from the hospital. He knows the amount of time he will have to devote as a care-giver. He is angry about everything and begins to lash out at Sam and Willie. The result is a moment of theater that goes to the heart of the moral question: Do we treat each other as human beings or as chattel because of differences of race? For South African Athol Fugard, his story is really about the evil system of apartheid. For us, his story goes to our hearts as we confront our own racism.

Director Kimberly J. Roberts does a magnificent job of helping three actors reach for perfection in a very difficult play. Bryan R. Jackson, as the wonderfully kind Sam, gives the performance of a lifetime. His dignity as a human being is the key to the play. Jackson shows us what a fine actor can do with a great part.

David Casteal is perfect as Willie. He gives the character humor and grace.

Benjamin Evans makes his Civic Theatre debut as Hally. He gives Hally the appropriate English accent. He is strong enough in the part not to be overwhelmed by Jackson’s performance as Sam. He is equal to Sam and that is a key reason why the play becomes a moment of greatness.

The Civic Theatre production ended in early February. Master Harold ... and the Boys was one time a Spokane standing ovation was richly deserved. Thanks for the memories.

*****

Do you know what NFL Football team is named after a poem? Well, it is the Ravens, named after the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. This fact is learned early on from a teacher in Columbia’s new film Finding Forrester.

A 16-year-old Black student from Coolidge High School in the Bronx shoots hoops below an apartment of a reclusive white male who occasionally peers out his window three or four stories above. The student Jamal (Rob Brown) is challenged by his buddies to sneak up the fire escape and prove he has entered the man’s room.

Jamal, an extremely bright student, wants to be one of the gang, so he willingly takes on the task. In the process he is scared out of the room by the old man. In the mayhem he accidently leaves his backpack in the large apartment.

Days later William Forrester (Sean Connery), a hermit-like writer, throws the pack down to Jamal on the street below. As Jamal goes through his materials to check them he discovers that all of his creative writing notebooks have been corrected by Forrester. Later he returns to the front door of the man’s apartment, only to be told, “Go away.” As a punishment Jamal is told to write “5,000 words on why he should not return to Forrester’s apartment.”

Jamal preforms the task and slowly gains the confidence of the reclusive writer. Thus begins a growing relationship between mentor and student, which is the heart of the movie.

Jamal, because of high test scores and great basketball skills, is given a free scholarship ride at a tony Manhattan prep school. It becomes obvious he is there to help the basketball team reach playoff status. In the process a white student, played by Anna Paquin, takes him under her wing. There is one very well done scene where Jamal is teaching the young woman the basics of basketball. In that scene we get some sparks of an interracial romance. But this aspect of Jamal’s life is not pursued.

A writing contest which Jamal enters proves to be central to the final act of the movie. F. Murray Abraham plays Professor Craw-ford, who has grave doubts that Jamal is as smart as he seems. Crawford particularly believes Jamal has copied the story that he has entered in the writing contest.

Gus van Sant, known for Good Will Hunting, has directed Finding Forrester. The film is based on a screenplay by Portland radio disk jockey Mike Rich. The acting by Sean Connery is excellent, as we would expect. Rob Brown, who was chosen out of 1,000 young people for the part of Jamal, is outstanding. He is totally believable even though the script has him being the smartest high school student in the world.

Anna Paquin, who won the Academy Award in 1993 for the New Zealand film The Piano, is very good in a relatively short role. F. Murray Abraham as the racist teacher is the weak link in the movie. He is so over-the-top that he is unbelievable. For that reason the ending of the film is weakened.

Some great parts in the film that Gus van Sant should be given credit for include a scene where Jamal types for the first time on Forrester’s old Underwood typewriter. The initial basketball tryout at the new school where Jamal is aggressive against the star senior player is a great piece of film-making.

Finding Forrester is one of those rare films that would be great for parents and teens to see together or at least talk about after both groups have seen the film. Anyone who has ever been a teacher will probably love this film.

Because Jamal helps bring the reclusive Forrester out of his closed world, this is the film for anyone who has ever suffered panic attacks or depression. Forrester’s suffering a panic attack as he tries to go to a game for the first time in years at Madison Square Garden is so good it could be therapeutic to some.

Finding Forrester, with all of its flaws, is still a movie worth seeing.

Finding Forrester is rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned). There is brief strong language and some sexual references.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane.)


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