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Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”…and the Boys may take place in South Africa during the early years of apartheid, but its depiction of the ways in which people are capable of hurting even those they love transcends the political landscape of bigotry and oppression that inspired it. Directed by the playwright himself, this deeply moving and powerful 1982 play, previously seen twice on Broadway, is now receiving an emotionally pitch-perfect revival at off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre.
Set in 1950 in a tea parlor located in the provincial town of Port Elizabeth, the play concerns the relationship between Hally (Noah Robbins), the 17-year-old son of the tea shop’s Afrikaner owners, and Sam (Leon Addison Brown) and Willie (Sahr Ngaujah), its two black employees. From the moment Hally walks into the establishment after school while the two men are mopping up, it’s evident they have a close relationship. The older Sam, in particular, serves as both mentor and father figure to the young white man, who has a deeply troubled relationship with his own crippled, alcoholic father.
Very little of dramatic importance occurs during much of the play’s running time. Hally tries to do his homework and engages in a playful discussion with Sam about men of “magnitude” who changed history. Hally cites Charles Darwin, while Sam unhesitatingly names Abraham Lincoln, sparking a rebuke from the teenager.
“I might have guessed as much,” Hally says. “Don’t get sentimental, Sam. You’ve never been a slave, you know.”
The free-flowing conversation — whose subjects include the ballroom-dancing competition for which Willie is practicing and Hally’s memory of when Sam cheered him up by teaching him how to fly a kite — is periodically interrupted by phone calls from the boy’s mother. Upon hearing that his father will soon be discharged from the hospital, Hally becomes increasingly agitated.
It’s at this point that a change comes over Hally. Having previously interacted with the two men as if they were his best friends, he suddenly begins treating them sharply, ordering them to address him as “Master Harold.” And when Sam points out that his doing so will permanently alter their relationship, Hally commits an act of cruel debasement that we immediately sense will come to haunt him forever. That the play stems from a real-life incident in the playwright’s past only adds to its emotional resonance.
Performed on Christopher H. Barreca’s beautifully detailed, slightly run-down set, the play receives superlative treatment from the ensemble. Brown, who previously appeared in Fugard’s Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek and The Train Driver at the Signature, invests Sam with a quiet dignity that makes his humiliation at Hally’s hands all the more shattering. Ngaujah, whose galvanizing starring turn in the Broadway musical Fela! garnered him numerous awards, is warmly engaging as the light-heated Willie. And Robbins, who starred in the sadly short-lived Broadway revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, superbly conveys Hally’s complex mixture of immaturity, vulnerability and ultimate shame as he realizes the consequences of his words.
Admittedly a bit of a slow burn, Master Harold requires patience during its lengthy, meandering build-up, before reaching its emotionally devastating conclusion. But it’s worth the time, and to see it again, especially as staged once more by the 84-year-old playwright, represents a privilege not to be missed.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center
Cast: Leon Addison Brown, Sahr Ngaujah, Noah Robbins
Playwright-director: Athol Fugard
Set designer: Christopher H. Barreca
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by the Signature Theatre
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