When Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold … and the Boys” opened on Broadway in 1982, following an incendiary reception for its premiere at New Haven’s Yale Rep, the cruel exigencies of South Africa’s apartheid were still firmly in place. It would be more than 10 years before a democratically elected government ended white rule. But a decade has passed since that landmark, and “Master Harold” has returned to Broadway.
The inevitable question arises: Now that the system of oppression that it so subtly but devastatingly condemned has been officially ended, does this tightly constructed play, rooted in the specifics of the country and indeed the experience of its author, still retain all its extraordinary force? The answer is a qualified yes. This Roundabout Theater Co. revival is solid and affecting, even if it is hardly likely to supplant anyone’s memories of the original staging, directed by the playwright himself.
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“Master Harold” was never a dry tract against apartheid — none of this exemplary playwright’s works is. It illuminated the poisonous atmosphere created by the country’s race laws by distilling a social plague into a few drops of bigotry that taint the soul of an intelligent and sensitive, if deeply troubled, young Afrikaner boy. They ultimately threaten to destroy his relationship with the black man who is both his surrogate father and best friend. “Master Harold” is as much about the way human beings are warped by shame and isolation and neglect — and instinctively seek to release their pain by inflicting suffering on others — as it is about the culture of a particular time and place.
Christopher Denham, a recent college grad whose Playbill bio lists a pair of novels and several plays but no acting work, capably undertakes the challenging role of the teenage Hally, the lonely son of an alcoholic, “crippled” Afrikaner man and his wife. The family struggles to subsist on the takings of the small tea room in which the play takes place on a rainy afternoon. Hally’s mother and father never appear in the play, but it is Hally’s tortured relationship to his father that gradually drives the play to its shattering conclusion.
Denham is working under the guidance of director Lonny Price, who played Hally originally on Broadway (replacing Yale Rep’s Zeljko Ivanek). And he is sharing the stage with another participant in the original production, Danny Glover, who created the role of Willie, the good-hearted junior worker in the tea room (here, a winning Michael Boatman). Glover has now graduated to the far more substantial role of Sam, the senior worker who has a profound, fatherly affection for Hally that must be carefully disguised as a simple friendship, one occasionally colored by the required deference that even young white South Africans expected from blacks in 1950, when the play is set.
The complexities of the relationship between Sam and Hally — and its importance to both their lives — are conveyed with great delicacy by Fugard, and Glover and Denham do fine justice to the nuances of their interaction. Their playful camaraderie reveals a natural affection that can only be based on mutual esteem; growing up in a racist culture as he did, Hally’s essentially good heart naturally responded to the love Sam has shown him since his early childhood. In one of the most poignant passages in the play, Hally recalls the day when Sam cheered him up by constructing a makeshift kite — a symbol of mutual hope for a happy future. And it was presumably Hally’s friendship with Sam — which he freely calls “strange” — that fueled a zealous interest in social reform.
A shared intellectual curiosity leads them into a game of singling out civilization’s greatest men that reveals both the limits of Sam’s education — he struggles with words like “magnitude” — and the limits of Hally’s moral awareness. A precociously smart kid who cockily wears a cloak of nihilism like a school tie, Hally condescendingly dismisses Sam’s reverence for Abraham Lincoln: “Don’t get sentimental, Sam,” he says. “You’ve never been a slave, you know.”
That patronizing note is important. Fugard illuminates Sam’s innate kindness and dignity at every turn, showing us how he delicately draws Hally out from his brooding disquiet when he learns that his father, whom he resents as a burden and an embarrassment, will be coming home from the hospital to live at home again. And Glover brings a graceful bearing and natural warmth to the role that, while not quite a match for the grave intensity of the great Zakes Mokae, who created the role, subtly underscore the natural stature of this man. To see him treated with casual disrespect by a boy less than half his age alerts us to the gross inequities — the monstrosities — that were the rule under apartheid.
But that condescension is sometimes delineated a little too shrilly here; Denham’s Hally is a bit too ready with an easy sneer, and his occasional supercilious comments are outlined too strongly. In order for the play’s explosive last minutes to register with the force they should, the ease of Sam and Hally’s interaction should be only delicately fringed with more disquieting suggestions of inequity in the play’s early going. Such delicacy is missing here, in a staging by Price that often succumbs to an impulse to embroider almost every line of dialogue with some bit of business. Hally’s high spirits have him leaping up and down in moments of excitement, and Denham overplays the unfettered rage at some points, resorting too often and too early to shouting.
Fugard’s writing, which descends to didacticism only very briefly, in some of the play’s last moments, is so deeply felt and unostentatiously potent that it is best served by the simplest means. It isn’t always here. Nevertheless, the play’s finest moments retain a full measure of their effectiveness. Sam’s beatific description of Willie’s dance contest, delivered with bright-eyed intensity by Glover, moves us deeply as a symbol of the idealized world that is being struggled toward, in microcosm, in this grimy tea room.
And the play’s climax is still terrible to behold, as Hally, full to the brim with festering misery at the petty trials of his life, and shame at his inability to meet them with equanimity, lashes out viciously at Sam — beginning with his insistence that Sam call him “Master Harold” from now on, and concluding with an act of violent humiliation.
“You’ve hurt yourself, Master Harold,” Sam gravely tells him. But of course the devastation touches Sam and Willie, too, leaving everyone onstage diminished. That is the play’s lesson: that such wanton cruelty is indiscriminately destructive and must be guarded against vigilantly, most particularly — most desperately — in places where it can grow deep roots in the soil of a culture founded on injustice. Watching the play 10 years after the fall of apartheid, we can take some solace in the knowledge that the legal structures that inculcated such inhumanity have been dismantled, even if the play also offers a sad testament to the persistence of its malignance.