Master Harold…and the boys is set in Apartheid-era South Africa in 1950, but Athol Fugard’s evocative (and provocative) tale is universal and sheds light on the darker side of humanity. It makes a persuasive case that that racism is not inevitable but a choice that stems from one’s own self-loathing. But what makes this little one-act gem exceptional are the descriptive powers of its playwright and the compassion and respect he has for its characters.
The story takes place during a thunderstorm in a tearoom staffed by a pair of Black servants, Sam and Willie. Sam is the older and wiser of the two, and in-between cleaning and setting tables they discuss the finer points of ballroom dancing and how one (Willie) should treat his dance partner. The superb acting, and direction of Richard Harder, keep the complex staging and dialogue of these sequences flowing seamlessly together with a natural simplicity.
The shop is empty due to the bad weather, and they’re visited by seventeen-year-old Hally (Master Harold), the White son of the owners of the establishment. It becomes apparent early on that Sam is more than just an employee to the young man and that a real affinity exists between them. What happens next are a series of life lessons that will ultimately test the limits of that bond.
The drama unfolds in a single static set, tastefully decorated with tables, a counter and a jukebox, engulfed in white with a black motif evident in the tablecloths and the checkered tile floor. The design, by Bert van Aalsburg, is not only true to the period but its stark symbolism is thematically appropriate.
Although the action all takes place in real time, Fugard will often depict entire scenes as remembrances of places and events that are so vivid that they take flight in one’s own imagination (aided by nice lighting changes by Sam Saunders). Never before have recitative passages of a dance competition or the flying of a kite been so eloquent or metaphorically significant!
Of course, the lines are only as good as those who deliver them, and one can’t imagine a more inspired casting choice than LaMont Ridgell as Sam. His wonderfully expressive facial gestures, body movement and speaking voice exude such passion for life that he’s a joy to behold. He successfully evinces the dignity and wisdom required of the role, and conveys a convincing paternal affection for both Hally and Willie. Bravo!
Moreover, during his heated exchanges with Hally – portrayed with an earnest, angst-ridden intensity by baby-faced Adam Simpson – he’s able to shed the outward nobility of Sam and reveal a full-blooded human being that’s not above being hurt by the ones he loves.
As Willie, Anthony Rollins-Mullens has the smallest of the three roles, but he’s not any less impressive. His pitch perfect portrayal brings credibility to a less obvious character arc that is nonetheless pivotal to the narrative. And even when his fellow actors take center stage his charismatic presence does not go unnoticed.
While the momentum of the play could benefit from a more steady progression, it does reach a powerful crescendo that is emotionally despairing yet tempered with a finale that gives one reason for hope.
This marvelous production by a tiny company with a magnitude of talent will linger in the mind long after one leaves the theatre.
Master Harold…and the boys
Off Broadway West Theatre Company, San Francisco
4 out of 5 stars (Smashing)
Directed by Richard Harder
Written by Athol Fugard
October 13, 2011 thru November 19, 2011
The Phoenix Theatre
[Photo credit: Barbara Michelson-Harder]