Poignant, riveting, captivating and disturbing are the words that come to mind as you watch the timeless production of Athol Fugard’s “‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys” playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street. The play, set in 1950s South Africa in a tea room, clearly shows the degradation that Black South Africans faced through the words that came out of the mouths of white South African males.
The audience is introduced to three characters, Sam, Willie and Hally. Sam and Willie are the Black South Africans who work in the tea room, which is the struggling business of a white family. Hally, or Harold, is the teenage son of the owners and has known Sam and Willie since he was a young boy. The relationships he has with these two men have differences: Willie he speaks down to; Sam he tries to educate—he has a habit of sharing his school lessons with him. At times he speaks to Sam as an adult he is trying to enlighten, and other times he speaks to Sam and Willie like an adult chastising children.
Hally is very stressed for most of the play because he is faced with the possibility that his crippled, alcoholic father is being released from the hospital. While he loves his father, he hates his life when his father is home. His father steals money from the business and his mother’s purse to buy liquor and gets drunk and causes the family great embarrassment. Hally is a frustrated teenager looking for someone to take his frustrations out on, and Sam and Willie fill that role. But Sam is not just someone to take Hally’s abuse. He speaks up and reminds the teenager how he carried his drunken father home through the town when he drank too much at a local business. Sam talks about the shame that he knows Hally felt and that he didn’t want him to feel. He also talks about the racism that Black South African men face at the hands of white South African men. Sam talks of being determined that Hally would not grow up to be a white South African man who would be cruel to Black South African men.
By the end of the play Fugard has given the audience something powerful to ponder. It is so disturbing to realize that even if a Black man can play an important role in a young white boy’s life, at the drop of a hat and in a moment of panic and confusion, that boy can turn on you and leave you unsure of where you stand in his eyes.
You must make your way down to the Signature Theatre to witness the moving performances of a stellar cast. Leon Addison Brown is phenomenal as Sam. His character has so many levels. While he works at the tea room, he is friends with Willie and they are training for a ballroom dancing competition. He is also a proud Black South African and a man who believes in carrying himself with dignity. Sahr Ngaujah (from Broadway’s “FELA!”) is wonderful as Willie. He is a man who will allow himself to be degraded by Hally. Noah Robbins is intense as Hally. His character is suffering and confused, and in the end does not know where his life is to go. Fugard not only wrote this piece but rightly so directs it. Who but he would know how to direct his work to give the piece the most impact. BRAVO!
The play will continue through Dec. 11, 2016, in The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W 42nd St. between Ninth and 10th avenues). For more information, visit www.signaturetheatre.org.