by Athol Fugard
Directed by Philip Akin
At the Court House Theatre. July 22-September 10, 2016
Master Harold bears witness to a real-life anecdote in Fugard’s own life, its setting, chief characters, and climactic action spun out of Fugard’s white guilt. It was as a boy that he quarrelled one day with his black family servant, Sam, in his mother’s tea room. And it was Fugard who had spat in Sam’s face in unforgivable rage and frustration. The play transforms this ugly memory into an act of uncompromising witness. And though it uses rhetoric as its chief channel, with little details that have a cumulative significance, it overflows with passion. So, what we see is a seemingly straight-forward play with a linear narrative (interspersed with anecdotes related in flashback), and an orthodox unity of time, place, and action.
At the play’s start, rain pours steadily outdoors on a windy Port Elizabeth afternoon in 1950, Willie, a mild-mannered black man is literally down on his knees, scrubbing the floor of grubby St. Georges Park Tea Room (effectively designed by Peter Hartwell), while singing and imagining himself doing a quickstep for an upcoming ballroom contest. His colleague, Sam, an intellectually sharp colleague, equates ballroom with romance, advising Willie against physically abusing Hilda, his unprepossessing dance partner who has borne him a child out of wedlock. The very mention of Willie’s assault on Hilda speaks to a sin of colonialism visited upon the colonized: the brutalized turned brute. Sam instructs Willie in the correct posture for dancing, and even guides him through the choreography with the aid of a jukebox number. These two are “the boys” of the title, men who manage to negotiate the dance without bumping into the furniture, and this becomes a metaphor for a world without collisions that Sam articulates later in the play in an impassioned exchange with Hally (Master Harold), the teenaged son of the white proprietors of the tea room.
In quiet defiance of apartheid, Hally has enjoyed a close relationship with Sam, who has been a sort of surrogate father to the boy whose real father is a long ailing alcoholic and cripple. Hally doesn’t truly respect his father, especially as he knows that the father’s wartime injury was caused by an accident but not on the battlefield. Hally resents having him back home, but disguises this aversion by false cheer. Affected by his deep-seated frustrated rage at his father, he allows this hate to infect his loving relationship with Sam, the man who had made a kite for the lad to fly, the man who had given him lessons about life. Hally increasingly becomes imperiously colonial, giving orders to the servants, demanding a respect that he has not earned or deserved, cracking a vile racist joke, and eventually spitting in Sam’s face. The contemptuous spitting incident marks an ominous climax, from which neither the black servants nor the white boy/master can recover.
The play is devoid of poetry but it is a striking incarnation of white liberal guilt over the corrosive effect of apartheid on the very soul of South Africa. It is Fugard, one feels, who is the principal voice in the play, though the three characters in the fiction are well wrought, and in Philip Akin’s powerful production strikingly portrayed. Allan Louis is a quiet, tentative, largely reticent Willie, preferring to shrink into the background or defer to Andre Sills’s robust, warmly paternal but conscience-stirring Sam. Sills has enormous dignity in the role, but he may be too strong a presence from the start, though given the onstage personality of James Daly’s Hally, this is excusable. Daly’s Hally is tall, gangling, self-assured, and altogether quite a bit older than the character is usually played. He also happens to have the most convincing South African accent of the three players, and his careless manner of lording it over the servants is perfectly in keeping with one of the insidious effects of racism. However, it would have been far more shocking to have had a Hally of smaller frame because a boy enacting privilege over a servant is far from shockingly revolting than having two opponents of almost equal physical stature. Daly also does not capture Hally’s inner conflicts as sharply as I have seen in a couple of other productions of this play, but at least he never seeks to be ingratiating in the role, and allows us to see the lad’s failings clearly.
This production is another triumph in the collaboration between Obsidian Theatre and the Shaw Festival, and though the dance sequences choreographed by Valerie Moore are somewhat constrained by the small acting area, the direction, lighting, and acting conspire to make a performance of enviable power and biting moral relevance. It is one of the highlights of the festival season.