Review by Ann Firestone Ungar
“Master Harold” … and the boys, written and directed by Athol Fugard, is a mighty play given a mighty production by the SignatureTheatre. It was a privilege to experience this moving work of art and I recommend it without reservation to everyone who considers herself or himself a member of the theater community, indeed to all.
Written and directed in the purest realistic tradition, Master Harold is set in 1950 in the St. George’s Park Tea Room in the provincial South African town of Port Elizabeth. It tells the story of the relationship of two black waiters, Willie (Sahr Ngaujah) and Sam (Leon Addison Brown), to Harold (Noah Robbins), the white son of their boss. Willie and Sam are in their 50’s; Harold, known as Hally, is 17.
The play begins with Willie and Sam alone. Willie receives dance instruction from Sam. He’s going to compete with a lady partner in a forthcoming dance competition which is a pinnacle social event in the black community. It’s a dream world where no one bumps into each other and life is beautiful. It’s a place where couples get life right, the way it’s supposed to be. The men have been friends for many years, as they have with Hally who arrives from school for lunch and to oversee how the business is going on this particularly rainy day. Hally’s mother is absent, visiting her ailing alcoholic husband in the hospital.
Hally has a particularly strong relationship with Sam. He has, through his school years, taught Sam what he has learned. Sam, an avid pupil with an astute, inquiring mind, absorbs the lessons, and the men challenge each other with banter of ideas. They wonder, for example, who is a “man of magnitude” and put forth their candidates: Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander Fleming, for example. They reminisce about their early years together and how Hally spent much of his youth with Sam and Willie. He acknowledges how much he enjoyed that.
Hally reminds Sam about a time when Sam built a kite, and they flew it together. We learn that Sam built the kite for Hally to give the child a sense of looking up and moving forward, flying psychologically. Later in the play it becomes clear that Sam has very much played the role of surrogate father for Hally whose own father is a public disgrace.
That relationship, for all its openness, is horribly shredded when it becomes clear that Hally’s father is coming home from the hospital and Hally will then have to take care of him. Life will become a series of emptying bedpans when what he wants to do is study and move forward with his life. He expresses his anger and frustration to Sam and Willie. Sam urges him to love his father, not speak ill of him. Hally realizes his breach of familial alliance. He retreats into his position as son, albeit to a deeply flawed father, and he attacks Sam with a profoundly crude racist joke. Sam finally responds with a physical gesture of great power: he lowers his pants and shows his ass, his black ass, to white Hally. The ugly omnipresent monster in the room is, of course, apartheid. It is 1950, and the South African system of racial segregation dominates with its attending denial of “the rights, associations and movements of the majority black inhabitants and other ethnic groups.” Hally spits in Sam face, and their world will never be the same.
Hally departs in the rain which has been falling throughout the dismal day. Willie tries, and for a final moment succeeds in drawing Sam out of this horror into the dream world of the ballroom dance. He puts his bus money into the juke box, the lights dim, and the two dance slowly. A magical mirror ball turns the tea room to fantasy and the play ends.
The impact of the action and the finely wrought portrayals by these accomplished actors is one of astonishment. The company of three succeeds in touching the deepest wells of tragedy. Master Harold is amusing at times. But it is at its best in establishing real, deeply experienced relationships, which, when they break apart, break us, the audience, also. Their loss is our loss. We feel pity, yes, but also fear, because perhaps our own relationships, be they interracial or otherwise, may have a shallow end where the danger of rupture lurks; and then we could be left alone, suddenly minus a valued friend.
About the actors: Mr. Ngaujah as Willie, the person who does much of the cleaning of the tea room but dreams of dancing well, is careful and charming. When his moment comes to protect Sam from himself and he fails to halt the march to the tragic moments, Mr. Ngaujah is subtle and entirely genuine. When his moment comes to bring Sam back into their hope for a better world, he is courageous and tender.
Mr. Addison Brown as Sam is masterful as a deeply intelligent person making the very best of his life as a waiter when he could have been a scholar. He, too, is subtle and entirely genuine in a powerful performance of generosity and self-defense.
Mr. Robbins as Hally is taut and forceful as the younger man of the domineering race. He does so well as he teaches and banters with Sam. His pivot as he moves from this friendship to his crude ethnic loyalty is entirely believable. His realization of how he has lost forever that person who is perhaps his most valued friend is truly sad. He has told Sam to now and forever address him not as Hally, but as Master Harold, an assertion of dominance and a mutual loss of the privilege of love.
Mr. Fugard, here in his self-acknowledged semi-autobiographical, flawless play, has directed with perfect attention to detail. It seems to me that he has allowed these masterful actors to do their work and guided the physical details of production with attention to realism which is gripping because of its truth.
The tea room set by Christopher H. Barreca is impeccable in its detail. Together with correct costumes by Susan Hilferty, lighting by Stephen Strawbridge, sound by John Gromada, and dialect coaching by Barbara Rubin, Master Harold … and the boys is easily of Broadway quality. The show has been extended, as it should be. I hope you will avail yourselves of this remarkable theater experience.
“MASTER HAROLD … AND THE BOYS” – written and directed by Athol Fugard
WITH: Sahr Ngaujah (Willie), Leon Addison Brown (Sam) and Noah Robbins (Hally)
Christopher H. Barreca (scenic design), Susan Hilferty (costume design), Stephen Strawbridge (lighting design), John Gromada (sound design), Barbara Rubin (dialect coach), Linda Marvel (production stage manager); presented by SignatureTheatre, Artistic Director Paige Evans, Executive Director Erika Mallin and Founder, James Houghton.
SignatureTheatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets at 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org; now through December 4, 2016; 90 minutes without intermission.