There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
and the Boys are men, of course. Black men in St. Elizabeth, South Africa, 1950. It’s Master Harold, for whose family Sam and Willie have long worked, who is the actual boy—a white youth of 14 or so, callow and bright and promising and cruel in equal measure, the way teenagers can be. In his short but surprisingly resonant play, the South African playwright Athol Fugard sets the three of them to reminiscing one rainy afternoon in the tea shop Master Harold’s mother runs—and then sets the young man on a dangerous path that will end only where his childhood does, in a confrontation that exposes the raw wound where his heart ought to be.
Master Harold is a play about a cultural evil and the personal evils that both feed and flow from it; a play about dreams and aspirations that speaks in the banal incident of an afternoon spent cleaning and talking and dancing and doing homework; a play, finally, about anger and shame, and how—in personal and societal relationships alike—each begets the other until it’s not quite clear which came first. Based, apparently, on an incident in Fugard’s own youth, it puts the bulk of its dramatic weight squarely on the shoulders of his stand-in, Master Harold (Steven Eskay, who turns in a fine performance in his first lead role). It’s no coincidence, surely, that lyric spiraling slowly from the jukebox at the show’s close: “Little man, better go to sleep now. You’ve had a busy day.”
Fugard doesn’t always make his points directly, and only rarely does he ask a character to hammer them home by actually commenting on them. Instead, he trusts the audience to see the casual, thoughtless sense of entitlement Master Harold brings with him when he breezes into the cafe Sam and Willie have diligently been cleaning, only to dirty up a just-set table and plunder the icebox. And when Sam and “Hally” talk history, Fugard leaves it to the listener to ask whether, given the legal formalization of apartheid policies in the late ’40s, there isn’t a painful sort of irony in a line like “World War II at least had some action in it; you try finding that in the South African parliamentary system.”
There’s another moment, even more awful in its heedlessness, when Hally, excited by an idea that has just seized him, makes an insulting pseudo-anthropological comment about a pastime Sam holds dear. And the arrogance that marks Hally’s side of their exchanges grows all the more painful as it becomes clear that the older man has been both surrogate father and best friend to a boy whose drunk, disabled biological father has been a source of family shame. As bantering gives way to tension and tension erupts in outright confrontation, Sam becomes the target for the bottled-up rage Hally has been unable to loose at the father he can’t admit he hates—and Hally, finally, lashes out in a gesture calculated to humiliate the servant who has dared to see the truth.
Thomas W. Jones II’s direction seems sometimes overly busy, as though to help disguise the fact that the play’s first half is more talk than action, and sometimes overstated, as when, during a crucial speech, the rain dripping from the eaves of Daniel Conway’s set slacks off to underscore the moment’s importance. When he’s not working so hard, though, Jones walks the show successfully along the tightrope between drama and melodrama, building it toward a final scene that’s just this side of shattering.
What keeps it on this side is that Fugard, in making Sam the wise father figure, has also made him nearly superhuman in his willingness to forbear and forgive, to let Hally learn from his horrible mistakes. The character is given to pie-eyed dreams and big-hearted ideas—his metaphorical rhapsodies on ballroom dancing as an escape from an imperfect world are at once surpassingly lovely and slightly saccharine—and James Brown-Orleans plays him here with enviable energy, an abundance of humor, and remarkable grace.
But toward the end, Sam begins to seem as benevolent as we expect only our gods to be; in a story as painfully, tragically human as this one—a story in which Master Harold stands in not just for the author, but for all who’ve ever been complicit in a betrayal large or small—he may offer us a bit too much breathing room. CP