‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys
GLOUCESTER — First produced in 1982, and set in 1950, South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “ ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys” might, in post-apartheid 2012, seem to have passed its sell-by date. Yet as the current explosive Gloucester Stage Company production directed by Benny Sato Ambush demonstrates, racial hatred and human misery never go out of style. Neither, fortunately, does compassion.
Fugard crafted his intermissionless 110-minute drama with just three characters, who interact in real time at the St. George’s Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth. Sam (Johnny Lee Davenport) and Willie (Anthony Wills Jr.) are black men who work in the tea room. Hally (Peter Mark Kendall) is the 17-year-old white boy whose mother owns the establishment. When he comes home from school on a “wet and windy” afternoon, mom is at the hospital tending to his crippled dad, so it’s just the three of them in the shop.
At first, their topics are the usual ones: Hally’s schoolwork, “men of magnitude,” the dance contest that Willie’s hoping to enter, the kite Sam once made for Hally. Sam and Willie are Hally’s friends, his confidants, at times his substitute parents. But when talk turns to his real parents (especially his father, who’s an alcoholic as well as an amputee), Hally lashes out, insisting that Sam and Willie call him “Master Harold,” trying to put them in their subservient place — even though that would leave him with no friends at all.
Fugard (whose own first given name is Harold) leaves no detail to chance. Here he prescribes, among other things, a cash register showing “no sale,” a candy jar filled with red licorice, a cake stand with two blueberry muffins and two Twinkie halves, comic books, signs touting Coca-Cola and Cadbury chocolates, and a jukebox that will play “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” (a metaphor for the intermixing of black and white?) and “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.” Even Hally’s school notebook has its “top right corner folded slightly forward.”
Gloucester Stage Company’s fine set has most of that and more: cafe tables on a black-and-white linoleum floor, “St. George’s Park Tea Room” stenciled on the glass pane of the front door, old black-and-white cricket and rugby photos on the walls, pastries in the display case under the counter, a chalkboard announcing the specials of the day (pea soup, meat pie with gravy, bobotie), Red Rose tea and Jujyfruits on one shelf behind the counter, Jameson’s and Aalborg Akvavit on another. Rivulets of water run down the glass pane of the door.
Davenport, Wills, and Kendall could, however, put “Master Harold” across with no props at all. Davenport’s Sam starts out slow and contained and immersed in the comic books intended for Hally’s dad. He grows into a jovial exuberance, but everything about him is big, and that includes his rage and his sorrow; by the end he’s crying. Wills’s Willie is thin, wiry, and upbeat, with a clipped accent that never wavers; he’s less voluble than Sam, but his facial reactions to Hally’s outbursts speak volumes, and he does a mean Joe Louis impression.
Kendall (whose parents emigrated from South Africa in 1985) is a large, curly-haired, baby-faced Hally, equal parts shuffling awkwardness and patronizing entitlement, a spoiled schoolboy who can be unforgivably vicious one moment and touchingly vulnerable the next. It’s Hally, oddly, who says, “People can be real bastards. It doesn’t have to be that way.” As Fugard and Gloucester Stage Company show, being a bastard is all too easy. It’s being human that’s hard.