A masterful tale of ‘Harold’
Explores apartheid era
Pay close attention to the punctuation in the title of Athol Fugard’s 1982 play, “ ‘Master Harold’. . . and the Boys,” now receiving a winning revival at TimeLine Theatre. It tells you much of what you need to know about the painful human dynamics at work in this luminous drama — a work born out of the racial divide in apartheid-era South Africa, but one that remains vivid as a meditation on love, loss, anger, entitlement and pride.
The Master Harold whose name appears in quotes is more familiarly known as Hally (Nate Burger). He is a smart but deeply unhappy, under-achieving 16-year-old white boy. His mother runs the St. George’s Tea Room. His father is an angry, crippled alcoholic, forever in and out of hospitals and bars, and long a painful embarrassment to his son.
As for the “boys” of the title, they are the two adult black men who are waiters in the tea room. Ever since Hally was a tot, Sam (Alfred H. Wilson), the older of the two, has been something of a surrogate father to him, while Willie (Daniel Bryant) might be the older brother.
But the time is 1950, and while such bonds between whites and blacks exist, they cannot be fully acknowledged. And the insidious nature of deeply entrenched racism is such that even the most intimate connections can be destroyed in a heartbeat. And so they are here, as a series of events triggers an outburst by the youth that will rupture years of shared affection and learning between him and Sam.
Fugard is a writer of charm and humor and heart who has great insight into human behavior. More teacher and revealer of truth than “social reformer,” the wide impact of his plays is rooted in their humanistic spirit as opposed to strident politicking. He also has a wonderful gift for weaving metaphors into the fabric of his stories. Here, a ballroom dancing competition is chief among them, as is a memory of kite-flying and a most engaging exercise involving a list of heroes.
The TimeLine actors (neatly adapting SouthAfrican accents) move unerringly under Jonathan Wilson’s fervent direction. Burger, a senior at Loyola University, expertly captures Hally’s half-baby, half-man volatility. And Bryant, with his brilliant smile and high energy, captures his character’s quicksilver spirit.
But it is Sam who is the moral center of this play. And Wilson — as a man of experience, inner grace and quiet anguish who is driven to explode — is ideal. He is a true gentleman and unheralded “master” in this “bloody awful world.”
Alfred H. Wilson (left) and Daniel Bryant help Nate Burger with his homework in “ ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys.”