"Master Harold"...and the Boys catapulted South African playwright Athol Fugard to international fame in 1982. The semi-autobiographical three-hander received instant acclaim and numerous awards; it has been made into a film and a television special as well.
Set in a white family's tea room in apartheid-era South Africa, Fugard's 90-minute mini-masterpiece is being brought to River Region attention at the Wetumpka Depot under the sensitive direction of Tony Davison. Its study of "institutionalized racism and bigotry" needs to be seen today, much as "The Legacy Museum" and "The National Memorial to Peace and Justice" encourage us to face issues of the past and present that we would rather not, especially since we see such behavior repeated in daily news reports and social media.
Opening night drew a sparse audience, unfortunately [perhaps word-of-mouth will encourage ticket sales]; nonetheless, the play's themes seemed to resonate as evidenced by their rapt attention.
On a rainy afternoon, two middle-aged Black servants take time off from their work in the tea room to practice ballroom dancing in preparation for an upcoming contest. Sam [Deion Mallard] and Willie [La'Brandon Tyre] welcome 17-year-old Hally [Michael Armstrong] home from school, and it soon becomes clear that the two of them [especially Sam] have mentored Hally most of his life, and that they share a comfortable and respectful relationship. -- They engage in some banter about the dance competition, reminisce with differing perspectives about some events in Hally's childhood, and share ideas to help Hally with a homework assignment: to choose a "man of magnitude" whose greatness "benefited all mankind" as the subject of his essay.
Hally is precocious and entitled, offering condescending comments to Sam and Willie, and occasionally signals his white privilege that the two older men receive with long-practiced patience. But when phone calls from Hally's Mother let the boy know that his tyrannical alcoholic Father is being released from the hospital after treatment for a leg injury, Hally resentfully knows that he will have to care for his Father, and reveals a latent anger against him. Taking out his rage on Sam and Willie, he resorts to vicious adolescent racist attacks against them, causing a rift that will be hard to reconcile. -- What we say in anger often reveals the unpleasant truths that have been smoldering beneath the surface.
Mr. Davison's acting trio, a bit tentative at times on opening night, individually and collectively create memorable characters and conflicts: Mr. Tyre's simple loyalty to "Master Harold" from childhood on, Mr. Mallard's attempts to help Hally mature and to better himself by studying Hally's school curriculum make him a surrogate Father, and Mr. Armstrong's conflicted and changeable emotions, all tell a compelling story that ought to provoke thoughtful discussions among the audiences fortunate enough to be in their company.
Fugard tells his story in real time, making a powerful statement about racism and relationships, and questioning "are we ever going to get it right?" Even if the romanticized ballroom metaphor is a place "without collisions", in the real world "we all bump into each other all the time".