“MASTER HAROLD”…and the boys is Athol Fugard’s visionary masterpiece about compassion, faith and betrayal (and so much more). The characters in “MASTER HAROLD” dream about a “social reformer,” a man of “magnitude” who will set history right. It’s as if the playwright could see the future of South Africa, when Nelson Mandela would be that man.
“MASTER HAROLD” was banned in South Africa (but presented in the States, first at Yale Repertory Theater, then on Broadway) as were many of Fugard’s plays about apartheid. “MASTER HAROLD” is above all a play about humanity. Thanks to director Benny Sato Ambush’s remarkable production at Gloucester Stage (through Aug. 12th) we can witness transformation through the power of words.
A lonely white child, whose father is an alcoholic and whose mother is busy with the family business, is shown kindness by the two black employees in his mother’s tea shop. That boy is now a teenager when the play begins. He’s smart as a whip but he still suffers with sadness and shame over his father’s public behavior and he doesn’t know much about life. It’s clear to us, but not to him, that Sam (Johnny Lee Davenport) has been a surrogate father, teaching the boy (Peter Mark Kendall) to believe in himself. Any joy for life has come from his friendship with Sam and Willie (Anthony Wills, Jr.), not from his family.
Ambush’s lyrical production slowly builds (without you even knowing it) to a horrific crescendo when the boy either can rise above the whites only politics in South Africa or embrace apartheid and cast his friends aside. It’s a searing moment, made even more urgent by Davenport’s explosion of emotion, unleashing Sam’s hidden pain. Wills’ character seems as frightened as we are, sitting on the edge of our seats. And watching Kendall, cowering in a corner with Davenport looming above him, we see the powerlessness black Africans have felt for centuries. We feel Sam’s righteous rage and we hope against hope the boy will not make the wrong choice.
The intimacy of a small theater only adds to the immediacy of the story. Even if you saw “MASTER HAROLD” back in the day, Ambush’s version is a revelation. Do not miss it.