Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Master Harold" . . . and the Boys

     “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys is the most painful of Athol Fugard’s plays for me to journey through. One of our former priests at St. Bart’s who used to say, “Hurt people, hurt people” and that is certainly manifest in this play and the powerful revival it is receiving at The Pershing Square Signature Center, through Dec. 11.

     The playwright directs his 1982 story of Hally, a lonely young white boy, and his friendship with Sam, a black man, in mid-20th century apartheid South Africa. The performances are heartbreakingly real, making the grief all the stronger when the friendship is abruptly ruptured, perhaps beyond repair.

     Fugard is a white Southern African playwright, actor and director whose work is revered in his country (now), ours and England. He has used his playwriting gifts for more than half a century to highlight the injustices of the apartheid that ruled his country for so long.

     The unjust system is given a human face in his plays, in this one especially touchingly. Hally (Noah Robbins) is a prep school boy of 17 when the play opens in 1950. His friendship with Sam (Leon Addison Brown) goes back to his short pants days when, living in a boarding house with his mother and drunken, invalid father, he used to find refuge in the small room Sam shared with Willie (Sahr Ngaujah), who also is black and in his 40s like Sam.

     “Life felt right-sized in there,” Hally says wistfully one rainy afternoon as he reminisces with Sam in the St. George’s Park Tea Room, which is owned by his mother. (Scenic design by Christopher H. Barreca; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge). Sam works there as a waiter and Willie cleans the floors, when he’s not joking around with Sam or complaining about his girlfriend, whom he beats regularly. The feeling is of three people whose bond goes way back and who are comfortable together without racial division.

     Through the years Hally has been educating Sam from his own schoolwork, teaching him geography and vocabulary. Sam is a willing recipient of this learning. It becomes clear, though, as the two talk that Sam’s main role in Hally’s life has been father figure. One particularly lovely memory the two share is of the day years earlier when Sam had made a kite for Hally and taught him how to fly it. It was a happy day for both, but it is only in the present that we learn why Sam had chosen to make the kite at that time. Hally’s father had passed out drunk in a bar and the boy was called upon to come get him. Hally had to ask permission for Sam to enter the bar, after which Sam carried the father home over his shoulder with the shamed child following behind. The father had soiled his pants and Sam and Hally had had to clean him and put him in bed. After that, Hally walked around with his eyes cast downward for days. Sam decide to make a kite so Hally could focus his eyes skyward. That is the kindness and love Hally had received from Sam, but in the present day Hally’s anger at his father causes him to turn on Sam in unbearable cruelness at the play’s climax.

     All the performances are first rate. Hally and Sam commune with a natural ease, but when the tide turns, the tension is so deep the entire audience seemed to collectively hold its breath. The change in Hally’s mood is triggered by a call he receives from his mother saying she is bringing his father, who has been in the hospital, home. She then put his father on the phone and Hally tries to put up a jovial front. Robbins portrays a Hally transformed. He crumbles to the floor, anguish stiffening his face, as he tries to assure his father, “chum,” that he is looking forward to his return. He looks hollow, ghostly.

     When Hally betrays Sam, Brown is a man wounded to his soul. I’ve never been as affected by that scene as I was seeing it performed by these two fine actors. The name of the play comes from Hally’s insistence that Sam now call him “Master Harold.” “You’re only a servant here and don’t you forget it,” he says. Cruel. Soul-cuttingly cruel.

     Just before the conflict reaches this point, Sam implores Hally to “stop before it’s too late. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

     “It’s not going to be me,” Hally says smugly.

     “Don’t be too sure,” Sam replies.

     Both are hurt. Fugard leaves the door open as to whether they will ever heal together.

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