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"Master Harold" ... and the boys

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 7, 2016

Sahr Ngaujah, Leon Addison Brown, and Noah Robbins
Photo by Monique Carboni

You might experience a bit of an initial shock at how shocking the Signature Theatre revival of "Master Harold" ...and the boys, which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is not. After all, Athol Fugard's play is known for eliciting gasps, recoils, and even jumps when it hits its climax. And though this production, which the playwright has directed, is good at generating horrified silences gaping enough to swallow Manhattan whole, those more stunned and stunning reactions are not to be found. That may be a bit unnerving if you're familiar with this anti-apartheid drama that derives so much of its forcefulness from the fact that the dreaded A-word is never actually spoken.

But this may not be a bad thing, as is suggested by the fact that the play itself has not lost any of its power even if it's lost some of its ability to surprise. A lot has changed since 1982, when it premiered on Broadway (then, as now, under Fugard's own direction), and even since 2003, when it was revived on Broadway headlined by one of its original stars (Danny Glover) and directed by another (Lonny Price). We have, hopefully, grown enough as a people to take a longer view of the story's historical implications, both as they relate to South Africa and to America, and enough as theatregoers to see this as but one part, however critical, of Fugard's wider-ranging output depicting the journey of human subjugation to freedom from the inside out.

The setting, though, is Port Elizabeth in 1950, soon after the adoption of apartheid. The black Sam (Leon Addison Brown) and Willie (Sahr Ngaujah) are not new to serving (or servitude), however, as they've long been tied to the white family that owns the tea room in which the play is set. (The set of that restaurant, at once cozy and epic, is by Christopher H. Barreca.) In particular, they have a special relationship to the child of the family, a young man they call Hally, and who is only gradually growing into an awareness of what Sam and Willie have long endured. When first we meet Hally (Noah Robbins), in fact, he comes across as not only well adjusted but quite unlike the type of people with whom we want to associate the treatment to which Sam and Willie have been exposed. He can't be like that, can he?

Much of the play is devoted to proving that such outward appearances are deceiving, even when they're bolstered by Hally's apparent outward tolerance. (He approaches and speaks to the men with respect, even a sort of love, and values their contributions to his life, and the English essay he's currently tasked with writing.) Fugard gradually reveals that the influence of Hally's parents, most notably his father, who is presently hospitalized yet again due to alcohol, has been far deeper than might be supposed, and that it can't be easily washed away any more than can the color of Sam and Willie's skin. It's a part of him that he will either need to grow into or reject, and too often it seems he's making what, to most perspectives, would be the wrong choice.

There's a lot more to him than that, though, as we discover during the action's 100 intermissionless minutes. Things are alternately pensive, funny, and harrowing as Fugard peels away more and more layers of the artifice behind which Hally unwittingly hides until we see the whole of the young man underneath. If we don't like what we see, we're forced to ask ourselves how we're implicated in creating that attitude, as it's clear it doesn't come from nowhere. That question may be harder to address today than once it was, though many audience members may see in it ties to the current presidential election (which has not yet been decided as this was written). What of us is programmed and what is chosen—and, most important, what can be changed?

Fugard attacks the topic so thoroughly and so bracingly that it remains astonishing that he does so with such sensitivity and beauty that overwhelm the underlying anger. This is most evident in Sam, a surrogate father figure for Hally, who is responsible for teaching him what his flesh-and-blood parents could not: "There’s no collisions out there, Hally," he says of the dance competition for which Willie is training, and which Hally intends to document for his class. "Nobody trips or stumbles or bumps into anybody else. That’s what that moment is all about. To be one of those finalists on that dance floor is like… like being in a dream about a world in which accidents don’t happen." That relationship grows and blossoms such that there would seem to be no way to ever chop it down, and it's at that point that Fugard introduces an axe in the form of behavior from Hally that ought not be described here.

It's difficult not to be wrapped up in the travails of two men who are lifelong companions yet whom, on a very real level, don't know each other at all. Fugard presents their unique bond as an education for both of them as well as us, and a reminder of the divisions that can too easily exist between us if we choose to let them. Fugard doesn't telegraph anything in his staging—the developments and changes unfold naturally, even matter-of-factly—and he shies away from neither the inherent harshness of his scenario, nor, especially at the beginning and end of the evening, restorative levity and music. (The excellent sound design is by John Gromada; the fine lights and costumes are respectively by Stephen Strawbridge and Susan Hilferty.) This is not a work that depends on sharp edges, but rather blunt subversiveness that, over time, knocks everything down.

Brown is a chief standout, and terrific as Sam: strong and wise, but keen to the unfair ways of the world, and even violently strategic in dealing with the betrayals that are foisted on him. Ngaujah, probably best known for starring in the musical Fela!, brings a younger, sturdier, and more vibrant tone to Willie that cuts a compelling contrast with Brown's more seasoned Sam. Together, they paint a complete picture of two halves of suffering that resolve into a portrait of an underrepresented people. Though in the first half he's too hyperactive showing us Hally's latent immaturity, Robbins eventually transforms him into a chilling adult whose seething spiral we'd love to look away from, but can't.

Neither "Master Harold" ...and the boys nor its gifted writer want us to—they know all too well that it's only by staring into the darkness and seeing where it leads that we can hope to eradicate it. We remain a way away from that, in this country and around the world, which means we need to keep looking, even if we know what's coming. The gasps we may no longer need. But the accompanying insight is, as it has always been, invaluable.

"Master Harold" ... and the boys
Through December 4
Pershing Square Signature Center, The Irene Diamond Stage, 480 West 42nd Street
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