Boys to Men in Master Harold at the Aurora

Enacted in 1950, The Population Registration Act in South Africa classified its citizens by their race. It was the legislative foundation on which apartheid — the policy of racial segregation — was officially built. It’s not a coincidence that Athol Fugard set his play “Master Harold”…and the boys in the same year. First produced in 1982, apartheid was still twelve years away from being repealed. Those politics of racism that separated blacks from whites inform the relationships between the play’s three characters. The atmosphere in the room is slowly poisoned by them.

[jump] Willie, Sam and Hally spend a rainy day together in the café owned by Hally’s parents. Hally is white, the titular “Master Harold”, and Willie and Sam are the black employees there, “the boys”. As the play begins, Willie daydreams about a ballroom dance competition while he scrubs the checked green and white linoleum floor. Sam is in the background arranging things and tidying up. With the older, paternal Sam, Willie is confiding, jovial, animated. Their amicable rapport is easy. Then Hally enters the scene.

Back from his school day, he starts to chat with Sam and settles in to study. And Willie: he retreats into a state of semi-muteness, resuming the role of a servant, an invisible man. It’s clear that both Sam and Willie have worked for Hally’s family for years but it’s Sam who transgresses his subservience by assuming an avuncular role. We come to learn that Hally’s dad is not only physically crippled but also psychologically: he’s an alcoholic. Fugard provides no explanation for his condition but it seems likely that he served in the war.
On this particular afternoon, Hally’s mother is at the hospital with her husband. She calls the café, the St. George’s Park Tea Room, to check in on her son and to tell him that she’s bringing his father home. We don’t hear her voice, and she never makes an appearance on stage, but her decision is the event on which “Master Harold” turns. What starts as a Socratic debate between Sam and Hally, an exchange of ideas about a homework essay, ends with an argument that mangles and lays bare their long-standing, and painfully unequal, friendship.

To illustrate this imbalance of black servant to white master, Fugard employs two effective strategies. Both rely on the devastating power of words. Sam, in an effort to calm an increasingly enraged Hally, reminds him of the day he made a kite for him when he was a boy. At first, the memory of this kindness mollifies Hally. But the memory is also tied to his father’s drunkenness, his inability to function or care for his son. Misdirecting his filial anger, Hally instructs Sam to address him as Master Harold. It is one of those mistakes that a young man can regret for the rest of his life.
This moment in Hally’s life makes explicit what the poet William Wordsworth implies in the line, “The Child is father of the Man.” Throughout the play, but especially in his final scenes, L. Peter Callender is transcendent as Sam, the emotionally generous surrogate father. Andrew Humann as Hally betrays Sam. We may not like him for it, but the actor excels at letting us see the character’s hurt, shame and confusion. All the while, Fugard deftly manages to shift our sympathies to Sam and Willie without turning Hally into a stereotypical villain.

Hally’s adolescent behavior will shape the man he will become, whether that’s for good or for ill. He represents a generation of South Africans who would grow up supporting or defying the strictures of apartheid. They could continue to inflict the damage wrought by their destructive fathers, or embrace men like Sam and Willie. Men who know how to nurture and protect each other. Men whose hearts leap up when they dance to a Sarah Vaughan tune on a jukebox, or when they build a kite to counteract a sorrow with the hope of flight. 

“Master Harold”… and the boys, at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-843-4822.

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