When, in 1982, playwright Athol Fugard wrote his stunning — in the truest sense of the word, it stuns — Master Harold…and the Boys, the stench of apartheid still strongly held in South Africa. Among other implementations, there were such things as “whites only” benches. Then, in 1994, apartheid ended.
That’s to say: overt apartheid ended. While writing this response to the Signature Theatre’s revival of the play, where Fugard is one of the international playwrights regularly honored, I can’t attest to how the covert apartheid situation abides in South Africa. I’ve never traveled there.
On the other hand, I can say, as we all can, that it couldn’t be more obvious during the current stateside presidential campaign that it is frighteningly palpable — the smell of an apartheid mentality is America. There’s no need to look no further than the heavy alt.right influence, with its blatant nationalist push. to imagine an American aparteid.
So while some might think that Master Harold… would be a dated play along about now as it opens on perhaps the worst Election Eve in American history, it woefully isn’t. Sad to say. To invoke a cliché that couldn’t be more applicable, Fugard’s play is as fresh as the morning’s headlines. Any morning, lately.
As Stephen Strawbridge’s late-afternoon lights rise on Christopher H. Barreca’s version of the St. Georges Park Tea Room in 1950 Port Elizabeth, longtime retainer Sam (Leon Addison Brown, warmly regal) is instructing the younger Willie (Sahr Ngaujah) in ballroom dancing so that Willie might prevail in an upcoming contest.
What could be more benign? Nothing, really, until Harold (Noah Robbins), known more affectionately as Hally to Sam and Willie, arrives during a heavy rainstorm, leaving his bicycle against the tearoom window. The indoor atmosphere remains more subdued than the outside (foreshadowing?) torrents — but onstage storms are rarely just storms Almost always they represent something deeply psychological brewing.
Something certainly is brewing, though not for a soothing while. What Fugard immediately establishes is the closeness between and among Hally, Sam and Willie. Sam, in particular, has clearly served as a surrogate father to Hally — whose actual father, it’s strongly implied, is a spineless tyrant with no time, and apparently no affection, for his son. As the three discuss their history in the light of this unfortunate family condition (Hally has always had the run of Sam’s and Willie’s quarters), their camaraderie is strong.
The storm is still building. When Hally receives a phone call from his mother with news of his father’s ill health, the atmosphere rapidly changes. Impelled to rage against the unseen father, Hally turns on the father figure closest at hand: he increasingly rails at Sam. Despite the fact that he’s assigned to manage the tearoom, Hally is still immature — then he decides to exercise his authority. After years of being one of a cheerful triumvirate, Hally now asserts his superiority, demanding that the affable Sam henceforth address him, according to Afrikaans tradition, as Master Harold.
The more that loving, understanding Sam attempts to make Hally see how childishly he’s behaving, the more adamant Hally becomes. Eventually — in a sequence nearly unbearable to watch — Hally commits an act of such irredeemable ugliness that it appears inevitable to Sam and Will that nothing among them will ever be the same again. Hally, though unwilling to acknowledge his — well, sin — is now Harold to the boys, and while he recognizes the destruction he’s caused, he is unable to walk it back.
At this point, Fugard — a deliberately unresolved denouement still to come — shifts from a benign depiction of a commonplace 1950s South African relationship between two black men and a young white man to something closer to sheer emotional devastation.
Theirs is a relationship brought to a boiling point by the 84-year-old Fugard, who proves that he’s one of the few playwrights who can direct his own work. The cast is flawless. The very tall Brown looks like a tower of strength, goodness and patience, a man who gathers hurricane-like force as impatience sets in. When Ngaujah’s Willie goes about trying to dance as Sam advises him to, his time-step and his overall attitude is winning. His horrified reaction to the Sam-Hally conflict — he is, to some extent, a stand-in for the audience’s horror — is perfect.
Robbins’s Hally is a shocking portrait of inbred intolerance. He progresses — if “progresses” could be the right verb in this context — from puerile boy to young man manifest with the bigotry of the society into which he was born. Robbins’ expression when Hally realizes what he’s done is a testament to the depth of his performance.
Fugard’s true achievement with Master Harold… (the ellipsis conveys plenty) is exposing the tearoom as a microcosm as he throws harsh light on a macrocosm. Not only does the playwright further expose the realities of South Africa during a specific era, but the play, as noted, also has a mouthful to say our current world and time and place, and in so doing sets our minds reeling and makes our legs unsteady in just 100 minutes.
Of the “whites only” benches I mentioned earlier — which appears on the cover of the program — Sam says something memorable. He tells Hally, “[y]ou can leave it any time you choose. All you’ve got to do is stand up and walk away from it.” Words to live by, wouldn’t you agree? As Fugard surely would: