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Review: “MASTER HAROLD”…and the Boys at Syracuse Stage

....fine acting, excellent direction, and good production values.

Review: “MASTER HAROLD”…and the Boys at Syracuse Stage
L-R Nick Apostolina, L. Peter Callender, and Phumzile Sojola in Syracuse Stage's production of "Master Harold"...and the Boys.
Photo by Brenna Merritt.

It is 1950, and on a rainy South African afternoon in the St. George's Park Tea Room, Hally (Nick Apostolina) is becoming himself. He was a boy - one prone to arrogance and self-pity, certainly but vulnerable, and capable of sweetness and hope. But now he is becoming a man - a brutal man, "MASTER HAROLD", who embraces the world's ugliness and claims it as his own. He does this by spitting in the face of Sam (L. Peter Callender), a Black man who had sheltered him to that point from the world's worst, including his own father. In this primal way Master Harold joins the oppressors as a way of not joining the oppressed.

We have grown to think of Athol Fugard's seminal play, "MASTER HAROLD"...and the Boys as a story about apartheid in racist South Africa, and how it poisons life White folks as well as Black people. Perhaps we see it applicable, with some modifications, to the bad old days here, before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is all that, but it is more than that too. Now that we are beginning to reexamine the roots of racism, "MASTER HAROLD" provides an opportunity to see race hatred as a product of a larger miserliness of spirit, and of - in Henry IV's words - arrogance, spleen and pride. The Syracuse Stage production, which you can see on video here, underscores the play's broader message with fine acting, excellent direction, and good production values.

Hally's mother owns the tea shop; Sam and Willie (Phumzile Sojola) are servants of long standing, who are as the play opens consumed by the upcoming national ballroom dancing contest, and Willie's difficulty with his partner, Hilda. Because of the torrential rains, there are no customers. Hally, finished with school for the day, bangs in to the tea shop, slams himself down at a table, and begins to complain about all the morons he is forced to deal with, starting with his father.

The three share an easy familiarity, and Hally and Sam are particularly close. But the seeds of what Hally is to become are planted early in the play; when Willie, engaged in a bit of horseplay with Sam, accidentally swats Hally with a towel, the young man goes berserk, screaming at Willie and puffing himself up to look threatening to the much larger Willie.

Hally is about fourteen, a bright kid who refuses to study and thus gets marginal grades. In this he is different from Sam and Willie, who had no opportunity to study and thus are mostly autodidacts. Hally delights in teaching Sam, who is three times his age - correcting his reading, giving him pop quizzes, and then engaging in intellectual discourse with him. Hally experiences this as generosity, but its real effect is to reinforce his feelings of superiority, racial and personal.

There are three quests which animate "MASTER HAROLD". The first is the ballroom dancing contest. The second is a school assignment to write a 500-word essay on a recurring cultural event. The third is much darker: to deal with Hally's father, a drunkard with a bad leg and a sour disposition, who is in the hospital as the play opens but who threatens to come home.

The play, which is set in the tea room from start to finish, spends much time in memory and imagination. Sam recreates the lush opening moments of the ballroom dancing contest's finals presentation; Hally and Sam remember together the time that Sam showed Hally, then a child, how to fly a kite; the two of them remember their first encounter, when Hally showed Sam, with evident pride, a map he drew of South Africa.

Hally decides to write his essay on the National Ballroom Dancing Contest. (Of course, the contest is open to Blacks only; the concept of mixed-race dancing is legally unthinkable). At first, Hally sets out to write about it as a commentary on indigenous Africans; he imagines, absurdly, that ballroom dancing, a European invention, is a substitute for African war dances, and wants to contrast the emotive Africans to the more refined, intellectual Whites. But as Sam begins to describe it, Hally sees ballroom dancing in a different way. At its highest level, it becomes imbued with grace and beauty, and a model for an imperfect world, which can become a place, as Hally says, where there are no collisions.

But that place is not this place, and so the play shows us in painful detail at its thunderous conclusion, one of the most dramatic in modern drama and the reason why this play still resonates nearly forty years after Fugard wrote it and long after the fall of apartheid. The struggle for power at the expense of love remains with us, and racism is only one of the many ways it can manifest.

The character of Hally is one of the most finely drawn in Fugard's magnificent oeuvre, and Apostolina gives him full justice. Arrogance is the engine which propels Hally forward, but it is a shaky one, and Apostolina lets us see the doubt and fear behind it. Hally is glib, and Apostolina fires his lines machine-gun style, with a flip flair. But Apostolina also deftly shows the machine gun catching fire, as in the aforementioned tirade at Willie, or in harrowing phone conversations between Hally and his mom, where he bullies her knowing that his father is also bullying her from his hospital bed. (In a few instances, Apostolina appeared to be fighting his lines, but he manages to incorporate his fumbles into Hally's frantic personality, and so they are minimized.)

Sam presents the opposite side of the same coin. He is wise and he loves Hally, but he knows that in the society in which he lives the time will come when he is no longer Hally's friend and protector, but his servant. He wants to put that moment off as long as possible but he fears that the moment is soon arriving. Callender, a very experienced actor who now serves as Artistic Director for the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco, manages to put such a subtle edge in his voice that you know something is wrong even before you can tell what it is; he is like a man who has raised a lion cub from birth, and now sees him coming of age.

The character of Willie is neither as subtle and conflicted as Hally nor as noble and perceptive as Sam, and Sojola plays him correctly by not trying to make him anything but himself. Willie's problem with his dance partner (who is also mother to his child) is that he beats her, and he is not bright enough to accept Sam's obvious observation that there is a relationship between the beatings and her failure to show up for dance rehearsal. Other than that, he is mostly a foil for Sam, a sympathetic ear and, occasionally, a surprising source of sagacity. I've seen actors try to add to the character Fugard has written - perhaps as a way of explaining Willie's casual brutality - but Sojola does not, and it's the better choice.

Performances which are uniformly convincing and which bring great dialogue to life are usually the responsibility of the director. So credit Gilbert McCauley with this sensitive and intelligent production, which allows us to see beyond the obvious into the play's human heart.

The technical work is excellent, as it generally is in these Syracuse Stage video productions. Riw Rakkulchon's set design is persuasively authentic, and his rainstorm, outside the windows of the tea shop, is so torrential that you may be tempted to look for someone herding animals into a boat. Indeed, the hissing of rain (Amy Altadonna does the sound design) is so pervasive that it threatens to drown out the dialogue during the quieter moments. I recommend that you solve this problem by listening more closely, which is also good advice for the rest of the play.

Running Time: 99 minutes.

"MASTER HAROLD"...and the Boys, by Athol Fugard, directed by Gilbert McCauley. Featuring Nick Apostolina, L. Peter Callender, and Phumzile Sojola. Scenic design: Riw Rikkulchon. Costume design: Kara Harmon. Lighting design: Rachel N. Blackwell. Costume design: Amy Altadonna. Choreographer and fight coordinator: Anthony Salatino. Dialect coach: Bridgett Jackson. Dramaturg: Greg Homann. Production stage manager: Stuart Plymesser. Filmed by Black Cub Productions. Produced by Syracuse Stage.

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