201 Clematis Street
West Palm Beach, FL 33401
Performing at Palm Beach Dramaworks (Apr 4 - Apr 29)
Runtime: 2 Hours
‘Master Harold’ still has lessons to impart
After all, following a long and bloody struggle, Fugard’s home country is a vastly altered democracy. Nelson Mandela, once an imprisoned antiapartheid dissident, is now a revered former president. And Fugard’s prize-winning dramas helped fuel that change, shining a light on nearly a half century of institutionalized racial oppression.
Yet even though Master Harold is set in 1950, just two years after apartheid laws were enacted, the play is as powerfully resonant as ever.
The new production of Fugard’s play at Palm Beach Dramaworks unfolds over 90 intermission-free minutes. Some of the interactions between a white 17-year-old and two older black men are funny, some affectionate, others rife with tension. But all are in service of Fugard’s journey to a shattering dramatic climax, one that is every bit as impactful as it was when the play debuted three decades ago.
Hally (Jared McGuire), whose mother owns the Port Elizabeth tea room where Master Harold is set, comes home from school on a rainy afternoon to do his homework and pass the time with Sam (W. Paul Bodie) and Willie (Summer Hill Seven), men who have worked for the family since Hally – real name Harold – was little. Both of the older men are getting ready for a big ballroom dancing competition, though the perpetually smiling Willie is having trouble with his partner Hilda, given the fact that she disappears after he beats her.
Quickly, it becomes apparent that Hally’s richest relationship is with Sam. The boy has long shared his academic knowledge with Sam, and the two engage in lively, fanciful debates. Sam is the wise, caring, patient father figure that Hally’s real dad, a hospitalized alcoholic, will never be. But Sam is black, Hally white, and in that time and place, pervasive racism was a codified cancer.
As staged by artistic director William Hayes on Michael Amico’s beautifully quaint set (complete with constantly rain-soaked greenery), this Master Harold doesn’t ever shrink from the realities outside the tea room door. The place might be a haven for Hally, but it is one in which he’s master over the men who work for his mother. McGuire fully inhabits Hally’s pain and cruelty, resisting the impulse to soften the character early on. So when he turns on Sam, his actions seem inevitable, not that the result is any less disturbing.
Seven’s Willie seems deceptively sweet, benign and often comical, until he matter-of-factly reveals his repeated pattern of physical abuse. Then that sunny smile feels a little creepy.
The heart and soul of Master Harold…and the boys is Sam, embodied for the third time by Bodie, who most recently played the role at GableStage in 2004. Honed over time, Bodie’s performance is exquisitely detailed, a mixture of warmth, dignity, hurt, outrage and mature compassion. Bodie was nominated for a best actor Carbonell Award for the 2004 performance, and his engrossing work here is every bit as fine.
Though the world evolves, some of the uglier qualities of human beings – racism both overt and subtle, horrible behavior toward those we supposedly love – are stubbornly persistent. In Master Harold, the Fugard reminds us of that truth.
By Athol Fugard
When a South African white boy and two black workers he has known all his life connect on one rainy day, their wide-ranging discussions illustrate all that unites us and the gulf that still divides us.
Palm Beach Dramaworks is enjoying its twelfth season in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach. This award-winning theatre, proudly presents superior quality, professionally cast productions of seldom seen classic and contempory works in its new intimate setting at the foot of Clematis Street.