“Thank you so much for treating me to a great play last night. Thrilling!” read the e-mail I received this morning from my guest who accompanied me to Signature Theatre’s revival of South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” . . . and the boys. And, yes, it remains a thrilling play, even 34 years after its premiere in 1982 at the Yale Repertory Theatre prior and subsequent Broadway run.
Fugard’s brilliant, unsentimental examination of South African racism in the years shortly after apartheid became official policy cut so deeply it was banned at home, becoming the first of his plays to premiere in another country. Apartheid may have ended officially in 1994 but racial tensions continue to simmer; no other dramatist has so powerfully expressed those tensions as Fugard, now 84, who—as is he did for the original—directs this production.
Two middle-aged black men, Sam (Leon Addison Brown) and Willie (Sahr Ngaujah), and a white 17-year-old, Hally (Noah Robbins), occupy the wide expanse of the St. George’s Hotel Tea Room, in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth. The place has been beautifully realized in Christopher H. Barreca’s realistic set, and delicately lit by Stephen Strawbridge.
It’s a dreary afternoon in 1950, rain continues to beat upon the large upstage windows, and business is at a standstill. Sam and Willie work here as waiters but, while Sam is elegantly dressed in formal waiter’s garb, Willie is in more mundane gear, his knees wrapped in cloths to protect them while he scrubs the floor. (Susan Hilferty did the costumes.) Hally, a prep school student, is the son of the establishment’s owners. His alcoholic, abusive, racist father, is in the hospital, but right now, Hally has to write a composition for school. Periodically, his mother phones to report on his father’s condition.
Sam and Willie have been more like fathers to Hally than his actual one, Sam even being his mentor, gaining an education of sorts through helping Hally with his studies. The father-son bond between the two is very strong, despite the racial divide; Sam, hoping to guide Hally into maturity, calls the boy “Hally,” while Willie, more subservient, uses the more polite “Master Hally.”
Framing the character-driven, 90-minute play, is Willie’s preparation for a ballroom dancing contest he intends to enter, and the assistance he gains from Sam. The ability to dance smoothly without crashing into other couples on the dance floor is a reflection of how life should be lived in a harmonious world, and even inspires Hally’s essay; we see, though, that collisions are unavoidable when Hally learns to his great dismay that his hated father is being released. Although there are hints that foreshadow Hally’s later behavior, the odious way he takes out his response on Sam and Willie, expressing the insidious, latent racism he’s imbibed from his father, is emotionally overwhelming.
Fugard’s piercing, semiautobiographical evocation of the psychological pressures created by living in a racist society is remarkably affecting. We watch three people who love each other struggling to maintain their equanimity in a society where racial hatred infects everything it touches, even when no one talks about race or even mentions the word “apartheid.” When Hally insists that Sam call him Master Harold, it’s shattering to watch the dignified Sam’s difficulty in responding to such almost involuntary nastiness, but even more so when Hally spits in his face.
Similarly upsetting are Willie’s horrified reactions and the frozen astonishment of Hally himself. At the end, Willie and Sam take up dancing positions as they attempt to regain their composure to the sound of Sarah Vaughan singing “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day.” We don’t know if Sam’s attempt to reconcile with Hally will succeed but, meanwhile, the dance goes on.
Fugard’s perfectly calibrated direction inspires excellent performances all around, although Robbins’s squirrely, self-centered Hally isn’t easy for an audience to like, much less the boy’s servants. That they do, though, attests to their moral superiority. Ngaujah’s Willie and Brown’s Sam are both memorably likable. Brown, in particular, because of Sam’s towering moral stature and the way the drama focuses on his fight to maintain control in the face of mistreatment, is exceptional. Or, as my friend so aptly put it, thrilling!
“Master Harold” . . . and the boys
Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage
480 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through December 4
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).