Saturday, February 01, 2020

Master Harold and the Boys Play Review


My wife and I saw the Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys last week. The production was held at Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art, which is a difficult facility at best.  Finding parking is a chore, there is no elevator to help even the marginally disabled to access the balcony, and interior creature comforts like bathrooms are woefully inadequate for an auditorium of this size.    

Master Harold and the Boys, written in the early 1980’s, is one of many seminal Fugard  works to deal with South African Apartheid and it has strong biographical underpinnings.  Fugard grew up with close relationships to his family servants and his mother did indeed own a tearoom like the one in which this play is set.  It was only accidental that our viewing was close to Holocaust Remembrance Day as the South African government did not go quite so far as mass extermination of the black population.  However, their subjugation of that population over a long period demonstrated  their wholehearted commitment to white superiority and that is the sad message that the play chronicles.     

Without a front curtain what you see on entering the theatre is a serviceable café or “tea room” dressed in basic earth tones.  A juke box anchors stage right and a counter and exit to the kitchen holds down stage left. The restaurant’s street entrance is up center on a couple of levels.  The text calls for falling rain throughout and you can see that nice effect clearly from the set shot I took prior to the curtain.  For further weather underscoring the production began with a thunderclap and lightning.  A comedy this was definitely not going to be.  

Master Harold is a three hander. At the opening Willie, a black man played by Odera Adimornah, is on his knees scrubbing the floor. He spends a great deal of time in that position during the show. Sam, another black man played by Ian Eaton, is arranging tables and getting the tea room ready to open for business. He is upright and moving most of the time and is clearly the dominant person of the pair. They are joined shortly by the third cast member. Hally is a young white high schooler and the Master Harold of the title.  He is the son of the female owner of the café.  We admittedly were in that uncomfortable balcony three rows from the back and we found that we had a hard time understanding the actors. They were loud enough, yet their diction and speed of delivery coupled with some unfamiliar idioms made a fair portion of the dialog unintelligible.

I must also admit to wishing that Oliver Proses’ Hally  had been played a few years younger and a bit more likable in the early going. Proses’ voice was unpleasantly  shrill  and already tinged with a sense of superciliousness.  Right from his first entrance he handed over his coat without even looking at Sam. He clearly had an expectation that someone would take it from him before it hit the floor. Signaling this character trait so early narrows his potential character progression and even constricts the development of the rest of the play.

Director Kent Gash was however quite successful in developing the vertical underpinnings of the work. Willie, the slower and more deliberate worker, spends most of the show on his knees scrubbing the floor. Hally arrives and takes a seat center and is served his meal by the always moving and upright Sam.  Hally is positioned like a royal presence and if given a scepter and crown would look like a king.   Sam, as noted, was standing and serving most of the time. He is also the one who is attempting to instruct Willie in the finer points of ballroom dancing much in the same way that he has been Hally’s mentor and substitute parent since he was a child. The critical story of Sam  flying the kite he made for Hally years ago remains a pivotal symbol in the play.  The irony is well pointed as we discover that young Hally watched the kite flying while sitting on a whites only bench that Sam could only stand beside.     

In spite of the slow development of the first hour, the show still strikes an overall sympathetic chord.  When the climactic break does occur and Sam attempts to keep Hally from blaming his father for the ills of his life, Hally strikes out against Sam rather than himself and in so doing finally severs the bond of his childhood. From now on he will be Master Harold to Sam. We see clearly how both  self hate and racial superiority  are insidiously and slowly  inculcated in a culture.  From Gone With the Wind to the recent film about Harriet Taubman we see a similar pattern. The  youthful bond between young whites and their black playmates or caregivers is eaten away as the children grow and slowly begin to adopt the ethos of the adult society around them. The poison seeps in like the lead in the water pipes of Flint, Michigan. The world “without collisions” that is alluded to in the ballroom dancing episodes remains like one of Langston Hughes’ “dreams deferred.”  The final image of Sam and Willie awkwardly dancing to the music on the juke box points sadly and clearly to their continuing plight and our own guilt in it.






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