Master Harold...and the boys
The impact of humiliation on the lives and behavior of a white boy and two adult black men is profoundly evoked in South African playwright Athol Fugard’s "Master Harold...and the boys" now at the Gloucester Stage through Aug. 12.
This emotionally rewarding magnetic production has been sensitively directed by Benny Sato Ambush. To boot, he bolsters Fugard’s poetic imagery with touches such as tuning up, or at other times tuning out, the sounds of a driving rain, whichever best serves the dramatic moment. Rife with metaphors without being pretentious, the play supported by Ambush’s persuasive direction, grabs you the way music can, as well as for its well told story.
The performances by the trio of actors are breathtaking for their courage to delve into the dark along with the light corners of the heart.
Initially barred from Athol’s home country, the one-hour and forty-minute, anti-apartheid play was originally staged at Yale Repertory Theatre in early 1982 (and shortly thereafter went on to Broadway where it played at the Lyceum Theatre for 344 performances).
The race suppression laws and government of South Africa were overturned in the early 1990s after 50 years of tyrannical rule by white supremacists who made up about 20 percent of the population. Athol chose to remain in South Africa through those years participating in theater that promoted racial justice even when some of his plays were banned there.
The white Athol, for whom this play is semi autobiographical, is amazing for his ability to write equitably about the inner feelings of both blacks and whites at a time when he was a part of a segregated society.
At once humorous and poignant, the comedic drama, taking place in 1950, incisively counters, for instance, the failure of much literature from white American authors during our country’s Jim Crow era. Exasperated at that view of her people, the American black playwright Alice Childress chafed at plays and books by white authors containing black characters such as stereotypically written servants who loved their employers unquestioningly, writing which was much praised by (white) reviewers as "heart warming." The irate Childress would scoff, "heart warming for whom?"
"Master Harold...and the boys" is also a play about servants and their employers but there the parallel ends because the characterizations are far from banal.
Master Harold, or Hally, is a 17-year-old schoolboy in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, who like many traumatized children, is unable to handle the embarrassment he feels.
In his case, the shame he struggles with arises from having a tyrannical father who is a drunk and a cripple. Unable to work through this morass of love and hate, Hally deflects his impotent rage by striking out at the man who has been kind to him in a fatherly way, the waiter Sam.
Hally is also unthinkingly convinced of his superiority based on a white skin when it comes to Sam and any black person that makes him arrogant as well as confused. The play gains much of its ironic humor through Hally’s unwittingly obnoxious comments that he makes out of that bigoted sense of superiority.
Mr. Fugard, whose full name is Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard and who as a child was known as Hally, has said the character of Hally was inspired by himself as an adolescent giving the play for those who know that background a ’Road to Damascus’ feel. Born in 1932, Fugard was brought up in Port Elizabeth.
While the rain pounds down discouraging foot traffic, inside a tea room and bar, The St. George’s Park Tea Room, one of the middle-aged waiters, Sam, is leafing through the pages of a stack of comic books (left for Hally’s father who is hospitalized), while Willie is on his knees mopping down the floor with a wet rag. Willie’s mind however is really on a ballroom dance competition he has entered for the first time and his eagerness to have Sam help him perfect his fox trot and waltz. Scenic designer Jenna McFarland Lord has perfectly approximated the worn little restaurant with its café style tables, wrought iron chairs, a wooden counter, and a jukebox at the rear. Lighting from Russ Swift gives the place a cozy feel on this soggy day.
Sam, a complex character is feelingly played by Johnny Lee Davenport who walks the tightrope balance of showing concern for the child who is hurting without becoming obsequious. He can be pushed only so far, however, by Hally, who threatens the relationship they have when the pressure of having his father come back into his life on a daily basis arises. Sam has his own rage to manage or not which we feel completely through Davenport’s performance. Davenport is also brilliant at recreating moments from the past so that we can see them vividly, most particularly the day he made a kite for Hally to fly and the ballroom dancing competition with the crowds, big band and its instruments, and the dancers taking the floor.
The secondary figure to Sam, his working partner for many years for Hally’s family, is Willie, in an enjoyable performance from Anthony Wills, Jr. Intriguing for what he lets Hally see of him and what he keeps hidden until the subject of a ballroom dance competition that Willie is entering comes up. The elegance of the event just two weeks away and Willie’s concerns about his dancing skills provide Wills with his own balancing act, servant on the one hand, and the romance of the ballroom evening which he wants desperately to flow effortlessly through.
When Hally comes back from school, the dynamics of the master and servant come into play even as the men we have come to know remain who they are at heart. Peter Mark Kendall gives an apt portrayal of the callow teenager who is mired in his distress, but who, largely through the magnitude of Sam’s heart and the peeks Kendall provides into the genuine feelings he has for Sam, we care about despite his unconscionable behavior.
Many people regard "Master Harold...and the boys" as Fugard’s greatest play, although the prolific writer, who won a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2011, is equally well known for such works, also produced locally, as "Blood Knot" (Theater Company of Boston in the late 1960s), " A Lesson From Aloes" (New Rep, 1988), "Boesman and Lena" (Huntington Theatre Company, 1989), and most recently "The Road To Mecca" (BU’s Boston Center for American Performance, 2011).
Gloucester Stage’s emotionally gratifying production of "Master Harold...and the boys" will be remembered with the best of the past opportunities locally to see masters of the theater at work.
"Master Harold...and the boys" runs through Sun., Aug. 12, 2012 at the Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main St., in Gloucester. For more info please visit the Gloucester Stage website.