Anyone can see the effect of oppression upon the oppressed, but what effect does it have on the oppressor? The gift that Athol Fugard gives us in “MASTER HAROLD”…and the boys, now receiving a superb production at Quotidian Theatre, is that he shows us the answer straight on, and with undeniable force.
Harold (Ben Davis), the son of a shopkeeper and her crippled, booze-soaked husband, is a Young Prince, by virtue of being a white male in the old Union of South Africa. He is also of an age (I’m guessing fifteen) in which every healthy man is a young prince, eager to educate his elders on the Right Way To Do Things, which seem perfectly plain to him. It is evident from the moment he walks into his mother’s tea shop that Harold – or Hally, as they call him – loves Willie (Theodore M. Snead) and Sam (Jason B. McIntosh), two black men who have been in service to his family since he was an infant. But it is a love riddled with ambiguity, since like most white South Africans in 1950, he grew up with the assumption that to be black was not to be fully human. They reminisce sweetly about the time Sam built a kite for Hally, and Hally, oblivious, reflects on his astonishment that a black man would know how to build a kite. They joke freely about an upcoming ballroom dancing contest, but when Willie clips Hally with a towel he meant to throw at Sam, Hally raps Willy with a ruler, disciplining the older man as though he were a dog.
Fugard takes his time in establishing the relationships among the three men, and there are some who might find the compilation of remembered events a little slow. If that’s you, get over it. Quotidian hasn’t chosen its name by accident; it produces plays in which God is in the details, and He is in the details here.
Every memory they share is shadowed by menace, like thunderclouds over a picnic. Here is a thundercloud: though Sam is Hally’s surrogate father, Hally has a real father, whom he despises, and must love and embrace. And his real father is coming home from the hospital, to Hally’s profound distress. And here is another thundercloud: though Hally loves Sam, and owes Sam for much of the happiness he has had in his short life, he lives in a society which treats black men as a particularly troublesome sort of cattle, and if he would join that society he must adopt that attitude. Eventually – and you know this will happen from the very first moments of the play – the thunderclouds explode in passion and pain. And Hally, God damn it, turns to his society-blessed racism as an anodyne in the same way his father turns to alcohol.
One of the pleasures of visiting a small theater like Quotidian is that you occasionally get to see a breakout performance by an emerging actor. Here I saw two. McIntosh – who you may remember as the Trekkie cop in Studio’s Superior Donuts – is a revelation as Sam: serene, powerful, wise, yet moved by anger to the very boundary of behavior permitted to him as a black South African. There is not a single false step in McIntosh’s portrayal. He lets us know what it is like to radiate dignity in a society which permits you none. And Davis, whose previous experience appears to have been in community theater and academia, hits all the right notes as Hally – simultaneously arrogant and obnoxious and vulnerable and supremely likeable; Davis’ Hally is someone you want to smash in the mouth and hug to your chest, both at the same time. This is not to ignore the good work done by the veteran Snead, who in the less complex role of Willie manages to convincingly transmit his character through reactions, movement, and silences as well as though the dialogue.
More than that: director Bob Bartlett’s production is meticulous, from Kathleen Newton’s costumes to set designer Robert Gandy’s shabby tea room to the awkward but precise steps which choreographer Matthew Anderson lays out for the ballroom dancers to dialect coach Christine Hirrel’s superb work. Willie spends a portion of the play sweeping out the tea room (which has the same name as the tea room Fugard’s mother owned). It is a measure of Bartlett’s, and Quotidian’s, attention to detail that there is always something for Willie to sweep up. He never sweeps bare stage.
Like many honest dramas set in our sad age, there is no truly cathartic ending. As beautiful as it is, Master Harold…and the boys calls out for a second Act – and there is one. It was written by Nelson Mandela, and was first produced in 1994, to great acclaim. It is still running today.
“MASTER HAROLD”…and the boys
by Athol Fugard
Directed by Bob Bartlett
Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Housekeeping: Bob Bartlett is a friend of mine, and I normally do not review plays he writes or directs. I was unaware that he directed this production until I arrived at the theater. Rather than delay the review for another week while DCTS found a different reviewer, I wrote this review. Believe me when I tell you I would have written the same review if the director was Joe Gaschlontz.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes without intermission