“Master Harold”…and the Boys
Written and directed by Athol Fugard
Performances through December 4, 2016
Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
|Sahr Ngaujah, Leon Addison Brown and Noah Robbins in "Master Harold"...and the Boys (photo: Joan Marcus)|
Unfortunately, “Master Harold”…and the Boys, Athol Fugard’s 1982 play about apartheid—the South African racist system which crumbled in 1994 with the election of President Nelson Mandela—is not dated: the current off-Broadway revival, warmly directed by the author himself, shows that it’s as unnervingly relevant as ever.
It’s Port Elizabeth in 1950. “Master Harold” is Hally, a 17-year-old who drops into the tea room his parents own one rainy afternoon after school, where two 40-ish black employees, Sam and Willie, clean and ready the still-empty place. Fugard shrewdly explores the power dynamics of these relationships—Sam and Willie are equals but Sam, more worldly, is the wiser one, while Hally is friendly with both men, but especially so with Sam, who is a kind of father figure: a kite-flying episode when Hally was a small boy is recalled by both of them.
Gradually—amid discussions of Hally’s homework and the Sam and Willie’s love of ballroom dancing—Hally’s own messy family life (sickly father and put-upon mother weigh on him) rears its head, causing Hally to end up lashing out at his unseen parents and then at Sam after the older man asks him not to say something about them he might regret. In a fit of supreme pique and unmitigated rage, Hally spits in Sam’s face.
The tension in this quietly devastating drama is built slowly and skillfully by Fugard the writer and director to that precise moment when Hally, Sam and Willie realize that their friendship has been forever altered, both by these seemingly quotidian events and by the strictures already locked in place by apartheid.
It’s all shown in painful and penetrating detail through the powerhouse performances of Sahr Ngaujah as Willie and especially Leon Addison Brown as Sam—Noah Robbins’ Hally, though persuasive, is less formidable—which allow Fugard’s percolating drama to sear itself into our very souls, dramatizing a bygone era of racism that remains, most distressingly, in near-perfect alignment with our nation’s own current political predicament.