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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Athol Fugard's Compact Masterpiece "Master Harold" ... and the boys Continues to Exert Its Powerful Spell
Luna Stage

Also see Bob's reviews of As You Like It, Say Goodnight, Gracie and One of Your Biggest Fans

Tony Knotts and Jamil A.C. Mangan
The year is 1950. The setting is South Africa shortly after the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner National Party whose mission was to separate the black majority from whites (apartheid) and to divide the black South Africans by tribal group in order to divest them of political power. More than eighty percent of the land was set aside for whites, marriage between whites and non-whites (blacks, coloreds, and "Asians") was prohibited as was sexual relations between whites and blacks. Non-whites had to carry documents in order to enter "restricted" areas, separate public facilities for whites and non-whites were established, and non-whites were banned from participating in the national government. Bantustans (designated "homelands" for each tribal group) were already being discussed.

It is against this horrific and tumultuous background that Athol Fugard, the great white Afrikaner playwright who worked assiduously as a writer and activist to secure freedom and self rule for black South Africans, set a little, one-act, three-character play that he titled "Master Harold" ... and the boys

The specific setting is the St. George's Park tearoom in Port Elizabeth on a "wet and windy" afternoon. Only two waiters are present. Both are black. The middle-aged Sam is reading a book while the seemingly somewhat younger one, Willie, is cleaning up. They talk quietly about a local dance contest and about why Willie's girlfriend had not shown up to practice for it. Sam is wise and mellow and, as is his nature, advises the less mature Willie (who mistreats his girlfriend) in an avuncular manner. Their conversation is interrupted by the home from school arrival of Hally (Harold), seventeen-year-old son of the restaurant's owner.

The bond of affection and camaraderie between Sam and Hally is palpable. It dates back to a time when Hally was a young boy and Sam made him a kite and taught him how to fly it. They discuss school and politics as would a father and son. Hally learns, through a phone call from his mother, that his father, an unreliable alcoholic who is in hospital, will be coming home this afternoon. Greatly upset by the news, Hally becomes hysterical and disturbingly ugly, taking his anger out on both his older companions, but mostly on Sam.

The specifics of the confrontation that occurs are to be experienced in the theatre. While Fugard does not offer any specific reason for Hally's turning on Sam and Willie in response to his unhappiness, it is frighteningly believable. For Fugard has subtly made us aware that there is poison in the very air waiting to overtake those who wield unbridled power over their "inferiors."

It is made all the more powerful by the gentle, intimate nature of Fugard's writing, and the heartbreaking spectacle of seeing a child strip the dignity of any, but here, a warm and loving, adult. For Fugard's "small" play is large and powerful because it packs an enormous charge of dynamite into a small, tightly imagined space.

Jamil A.C. Mangan fully embodies the intelligence and dignity, warmth and quiet pride of Sam. Mangan maximizes the shattering quality of Sam's hurt with full force without going overboard and emoting. Beethovan Oden's Willie provides an appropriate contrast to Sam. In accordance with the text, Oden displays the qualities of a pleasant young man of no particular weight. For there can be doubt, one need not be special in order to be entitled to fairness, dignity and respect. Tony Knotts convincingly takes his Hally from amiable and likeable into a rather abrupt shift into hatefulness. Knotts conveys the underlying hurt and desperation which has left him so readily susceptible to the poison of hatred.

Director Reginald L. Douglas has captured Fugard's richly nuanced details in the interactions among Sam, Willie and Hally so as to present Fugard's profoundly personal Master Harold to us with its pain, power and glory fully revealed.

"Master Harold" ... and the boys continues performances (Eves: Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday - Saturday 8 pm/ Mats: Sunday 3 pm) through March 2, 2014, at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange. Box Office: 973-395-5551; online:

"Master Harold"... and the boys by Athol Fugard; directed by Reginald L. Douglas

Hally………………..Tony Knotts
Sam……….. Jamil A.C. Mangan
Willie………….Beethovan Oden

Photo: Steven Lawler

- Bob Rendell

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