“Master Harold””¦ and the boys at the Signature Theatre is a rare and special treat: a landmark and still timely play that is the masterwork of an important playwright directed with real grace and insight by the writer himself. Add to this mixture three delicate, precise performances, and the result is a powerful 100 minutes of theater.
The play is Athol Fugard’s 1982 examination of the human complexities underlying the systematic racism of South Africa’s official policies of apartheid. Harold (Noah Robbins) is a white teenager who enjoys passing the afternoons in his parents’ cafÃ© with Willie (Sahr Ngaujah) and Sam (Leon Addison Brown), two black men who have been longtime employees of the family. Sam affectionally refers to the boy as Hally as the three spend a particularly rainy afternoon reminiscing about similar time wasted happily away between the three when Hally was in short pants.
But the foreboding specter of racial iniquity looms over this cozy, rainy afternoon. Affectionate or not, Sam is still responsible for fetching Hally his after-school meal, and we can never overlook the fact that Willie spends a great deal of time on his hands and knees washing the floor. For most of the twentieth century, apartheid enforced segregation in South Africa, significantly restricting the ability of blacks to live and work throughout the country. Men like Willie and Sam would not simply have been employees of Hally’s family; the law would have ensured that they were lower class citizens.
This grim reality means that the power dynamics of Fugard’s three-person play are always skewed drastically in favor of the white teenager over the black adults. Under the direction of Fugard (a white South African whose plays reveal a constant distress over the human effects of apartheid), Robbins captures meticulously the balance of friendship and condescension. Robbins makes clear that Hally certainly enjoys the company of the older black men, but particularly when sharing his lessons from school with Sam (who would not have had access to education) we see and hear an unmistakable air of superiority.
Brown’s Sam seems well aware of this iniquity, but evinces an affection for his young friend that is more genuine than Hally’s. The white boy may teach Sam about literature and history, but Brown shows us that Sam is invested in teaching Hally as much as he can about growing into a man.
And yet, like the relationship between Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and Falstaff, the union of this unlikely pair is doomed from the start, and this play becomes its most electric as the relationship reaches its most dangerous terrain. As the play reaches its climax, Brown astounds with the range of his character. He shows wrenchingly how one betrayal can usher in the painful memory of years of suffering and fundamentally shake one’s claim to identity and dignity. Brown’s tone and mannerism become weary and defeated, but his most haunting feature is his face, which captures all the painful realizations rushing through Sam suddenly and unexpectedly on a rainy afternoon. Ngaujah also shines in the play’s late stages, as he shows his character suddenly burdened by pity for Sam, disappointment in Hally, and anxiety about his world.
This short production may begin to drag in its middle, but Fugard’s writing and direction utilize the quotidian masterfully to engender and underscore an impactful conclusion. That is perhaps most true of “Master Harold””¦ and the boys than of any of Fugard’s other fine plays, and this production expertly captures both the tension of the social situation and the shock of its snapping.