Though the self-consciousness and symbolism that characterises much of Athol Fugard’s writing is often in evidence in Master Harold ... and the Boys, first performed in 1982 at the Yale Repertory Theater, it remains one of the most powerful and moving dramas written about the iniquities of racism and apartheid. It’s also Fugard’s most profoundly personal play because of its strong autobiographical content.
The time is 1950, and the location is the small seaside town of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Master Harold, affectionately known as Hally (Anson Boon), is a precocious teenager whose parents are the owners of a modest establishment called The St. George’s Park Tea Room. The Boys are Sam (Lucian Msamati) and Willie (Hammed Animashaun), two black menials employed to wait on tables and clean the premises.
One rainy afternoon Hally arrives at the tearoom for a bite to eat and to write an essay as part of his homework. It is soon established that Sam, in particular, is a kind of surrogate father to him. He has known and loved Hally since the kid wore short trousers, and over the years, the values he has instilled in him are very different from those of his real father, a bigoted racist and a crippled alcoholic with whom Hally has little in common.
Much of the first half of the play (which runs 100 minutes without intermission) revolves around the attempts of Willie to hone his non-existent ballroom dancing skills in preparation for the local upcoming annual dance competition. As he doesn’t have enough money to deposit in the cafe’s obligatory jukebox, Sam agrees to partner him, and together they go through the motions of dancing the slow fox-trot.
Hally cannot see any value in ballroom dancing. He calls it “simple minded” and insensitively equates it to “the culture of primitive black society,” the first of several conscious or unconscious ingrained racist barbs he inflicts on Sam, who in contrast sees dancing as being “in a dream about a world where accidents don’t happen.”
It’s an impossible dream of course, and as the play progresses, Hally’s seemingly good-natured, albeit patronising barbs turn to vicious condescension after Sam, for whom dignity is the tenet by which he lives, scolds the teenager for disrespecting his father. The sudden turnabout in Hally’s demeanour is breathtakingly shocking as he vents his fury at Sam for admonishing him and insisting from now on he be called Master Harold, not Hally.
Whatever bond the servant and his young master once shared (especially poignant are Sam’s recollections of the improvised kite he made for Hally as a child) vanish instantly. A palpable tension fills the stage as Sam, after painfully debasing himself in the cruellest act of physical humiliation I think I’ve seen on a stage, transfers a similar dose of pain and humiliation on Hally, whose stricken sense of shame, disgust and self-hatred at what he has done has to be one of the most electrifying moments in contemporary theater.
It’s the hardest scene in the play to pull off with the appropriate impact. In this otherwise finely directed revival by Ray Alexander Weise, Boon, making his stage debut in the role, unfortunately isn’t fully up to the task. The pain and self-loathing Hally has to feel as he transitions from boyhood to manhood in front of your eyes, just isn’t there yet. There’s also a self-conscious cuteness in the earlier scenes that needs refining. Let’s hope, as the run progresses, so does he.
The parts of Sam and Willie are easier to nail, and both Animashaun and Msamati flesh them out admirably, especially Msamati, whose warmth and innate dignity help illuminate an uneven but ultimately powerful play.
Happily, legalised apartheid in South Africa no longer exists. Racial prejudice, alas, still does. A timely revival.