Actor brings own African perspective to local play about apartheid

Racial discrimination no longer exists legally in the United States; however, racism itself is still rampant in today's society. At least, this is what Canada Leigh, co-star in Seattle Public Theater's production of "Master Harold...and the Boys," believes.

Leigh plays the role of Sam, a black South African during 20th-century apartheid.


Leigh, whose first professional role was with the Bathhouse Theater, chose to audition for the role of Sam because he has loved the play since he was 5 years old. "I admired the character of Sam; he was strong," he said. "He was put into a position where he had to maneuver, and he did it well."

Leigh was also attracted to the characters' unique sensitivities. "Each character - you only have to say one word, and they break," he said. "In a world that seems very secure, they are still precarious.... Outside is rain and apartheid; inside the café is warmth and friendship."

He added, "It shows you how to treat human beings and how to help if they are in danger of hurting themselves."

Leigh said he has never done such an emotional production dealing with deep social issues. And yet, for him, the play is unifying. "It shows how we are more alike than separate from each other," he said. "It is really about relationships."


The play parallels life in the United States. Although Leigh does not fully identify with Sam since he grew up with an affluent extended family, he sees similarities.

"We live in the United States, which was built from slavery," he said. "Racism is still here; it still exists.... On the surface it's all OK, but underneath there is still hatred and bigotry."

Generally, Leigh said he has experienced racism on a subtle level. When he is in an expensive jewelry store or a fancy restaurant, he feels himself being followed and watched. "Like they're thinking I couldn't afford to be (there)," he said. "Like, 'what's a black man doing here?"

Moving from Sierra Leone to the United States via Europe in his early 20s has helped Leigh play Sam because "I understand subtleties better now," he said. "Sam was such an extreme case, though."

Studying about the United States' history of racism and people like Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped Leigh to better understand the play and his role of Sam.

Yet, it's difficult for him, he said, to relate to Sam's experiences during a time of institutionalized racism vs. life in the United States. "I have the freedom to walk away [here]," Leigh said. "If someone hits me, I have the freedom to protect myself."


Although Leigh gives artistic and show director Shana Bestock most of the credit for directing and insight, he does believe that his African background has brought more of the African richness and tradition to the production.

"I think, what would I do if I was in this position?" Leigh said. In this way, he is able to provide guidance for conduct within the play.

For Bestock, the role of Sam was Leigh's the moment he walked in the door and began reading. "It was one of those 'ah' moments," she said. "Canada has such an amazing presence."

Bestock notes Leigh's combination of powerfulness and compassion, which she says is "rare to find."

Bestock's own life was transformed in her teens by this play. "I work with teens, and it was the right time and place for [the play] to be put out into the universe again."

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