It is 1950 in South Africa, and the rain is pouring over the roof of St. Georges Park Tea Room (it really does, too, thanks to Ken Sheats’ terrific set). You are a seventeen-year-old boy named Harold – Hally (Sean McComas) for short – and as you scurry toward your mother’s shop your mind is full of the things which dominate all seventeen-year-old minds. The lunatics and morons who qualify as teachers in your school. The rotten assignment to write a 500-word essay on the recurrent cultural festival of your choice.
And one other thing: your fear that your father, a lame man awash in alcohol and self-pity, might be released from the hospital to upset your home and your life.
So you reach out to your best friends – Sam (Michael Anthony Williams) and Willie (Baakari Wilder), who are waiting for you at the Tea Shop. You’ve known them all your lives. When you wanted to hide from your quarreling parents, you would run to the room they shared. When you felt at your lowest, Sam would show you how to fly a kite.
They are older, and wise, and you absorb their experiences with the same gusto as the cream soda float you make out of ingredients boosted out of your mother’s freezer. Of course, you look down your nose at them a little. After all, you are seventeen years old, and thus possessed of all the knowledge and reasoning ability the world has to offer.
And here’s another reason you look down your nose at them. You’re white. And they’re black.
“MASTER HAROLD”…and the boys is one of the twentieth century’s greatest, and most important, English-language plays, and Richard Pilcher’s excellent production, now at Bay Theatre in Annapolis, tells us why. Written at a time when the stench of apartheid overwhelmed the land, Athol Fugard’s play limns out, in chilling detail, the cost of apartheid and the superstitious racism which supported it – to white people. But apartheid is eighteen years in its grave now, and black people run South Africa. What relevance does this story still have?
Plenty, if you see the work being done at Bay Theatre. The relationship which McComas and Williams fall into is too big to pigeonhole in one era, or into one set of dilemmas.
When Williams, as Sam, confronts McComas’ Hally about Hally’s self-destructive behaviors, Hally grabs on to race as a way to desperately lash back. But it is clear from the way the production handles the text that it could as easily have been education, or class, or economic position. The way Williams and McComas present the confrontation makes “MASTER HAROLD” be about more than the pernicious effects of apartheid. It becomes a story about what happens when a boy walks away from himself on the way to becoming a man. It is a massive confrontation between the dignity of a conquered people – which Williams radiates like the Sun – and the thin power of undeserved advantage, which comes off McComas like sweat.
The way Williams and McComas handle the final confrontation between Hally and Sam is emblematic of the thoughtfulness and authenticity they bring to the entire performance. Hally’s nasal callousness, made somehow endearing by McComas, is the perfect counterpart to Williams’ smooth basso profundo. Sam’s deep liquid vowels conjure up the picture of a father comforting his son throughout most of the play – which is, of course, what he essentially is. (The accents were spot-on, a tribute to dialect coach Nancy Krebs).
“MASTER HAROLD” … and the boys
Closes November 11, 2012
Bay Theatre Company
275 West Street
Annapolis, MD 21401
1 hour, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $55
Thursdays thru Sundays
This is not to overlook the work of Wilder in a smaller but very difficult role. Willie is a dim fellow, and his mistaken assumptions and conclusions, which he utters with great vehemence, are the source of much of the play’s comedy. But Wilder makes him the diminished man he is supposed to be without ever demeaning him, and the insight he expresses at a crucial moment is not out of character.
“Realize now he was the most significant – the only – friend of my early years,” said Hally about Sam Semela, a decade later, reminiscing about his days at the St. Georges Park Tea Room, where he would go to escape the self-pitying ravings of his drunken father. But wait! – this Hally is Harold Athol Fugard (”Notebooks,” 1961), the great Afrikaans playwright, and MASTER HAROLD…and the Boys, in which he lays his adolescent self, with all his confusion and pretension, before us in the cause of understanding, is his greatest work.
Bay Theatre’s bright, bold, authentic production is as large and generous as Fugard’s intentions. You would be a fool to miss it.
“MASTER HAROLD”…and the boys by Athol Fugard, directed by Richard Pilcher. Features Michael Anthony Williams, Sean McComas and Baakari Wilder. Choreography: Lauri PetroySet design by Ken Sheats. Set construction by Dan Interlaadi. Lighting design: Preston Strawn. Properties: JoAnn Gidos. Costume design: Jackie Colestock. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs. Stage management by Wendy Saulters. Produced by Bay Theatre Company. Reviewed by Tim Treanor