One of Athol Fugard’s most deeply personal and autobiographical plays, “Master Harold” … and the Boys is also one of his most profound and powerful. Signature Theatre and New York theatergoers are lucky that Fugard himself has directed this production. He proves once again that he can work magic with actors as well as with words. Funny, sad, beautiful and at times ugly, Master Harold is a wise play that shows the world as it is and how it should be.
It may be universal and timeless, but the play is also set very specifically in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. In other words it is set during apartheid, when South African blacks were servants and whites were the bosses. The play takes place in a tearoom, where the waiters Sam (Leon Addison Brown) and Willie (Sahr Ngaujah) are tidying up. When he’s not scrubbing the floor, Willie is practicing his dance steps. We learn that he has entered a ballroom-dancing competition. He isn’t the most graceful dancer, however, and he blames his partner Hilda for having two left feet. Sam, a much better dancer, offers pointers.
The third character, Hally (Noah Robbins), who is based on the teenaged Fugard, enters from the pouring rain. He has a friendly relationship with the two older black men. He and Sam discuss subjects Hally is studying in school. They even debate who in history qualifies as “men of magnitude.” Hally has taught Sam a lot of what he’s learned at school, but it turns out that Sam has much more to teach the callow Hally.
Early on in the intermissionless play, Sam describes how black men are whipped on the backside in jail. “I’ve heard enough, Sam,” Hally says. “Jesus! It’s a bloody awful world when you think of it. People can be real bastards.”
Hally later proves his point by treating his friend Sam in a degrading manner. It’s a shocking moment, but not entirely surprising given the time and place. Fugard has said that he did the same thing, and that Sam forgave him. In the play, after the tone has turned dark and sad, Fugard finally leaves us with a sense of hope. Maybe, just maybe, the world can become a better place with less prejudice where people don’t always treat each other badly.
The play has lost none of its power since it premiered on Broadway in 1982, and at age 84 Fugard shows that he remains a first-rate director. He does a masterful job with his three actors and adds numerous small but effective directorial touches. The three actors are wonderful and play off each other quite well. Brown makes Sam straight-backed, smart and distinguished. When he isn’t speaking, Brown is a great listener. Ngaujah’s Willie is down to earth, likable and rather sweet. The role of Hally is complicated because he is at times sympathetic (due to his unhappy home life) and at other times an adolescent jerk. Robbins is about 10 years older than Hally, but he’s short and slight and a good enough actor that you quickly forget that he’s not a teenager. He deftly handles Hally’s transitions from being jovial to angry. We may not always like Hally, but we understand why he acts the way he does.
“Master Harold” … and the Boys is a play that stays with you. I vividly remember the 1983 London production starring the brilliant John Kani. The Broadway revival in 2003 was also fine. In August I saw a strong production at the Shaw Festival. I was afraid that it might be too soon to see this searing play again. I needn’t have worried. In Fugard’s flawless staging, his beautiful play breaks your heart and then offers hope.