A late afternoon in a plain tea room in small town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950 provides the setting for unraveling of the relationship among Hally (Harold) (Noah Robbins), the son of the white middle class owners of the café, and Willie (Sahr Ngaujah) and Sam (Leon Addison Brown), the two black men who tend to the everyday functioning of the tea shop. Willie and Sam are practicing for an upcoming dance competition in the opening minutes of the play. Sam is clearly the smarter, smoother man, winkingly judging Willie’s dance steps.
Hally ritually comes to the tea room after school where he can talk about his day, study and josh with his two friends, particularly Sam who has been particularly close to Hally. Hally’s domestic life has not been easy. In fact, one of the reasons Hally takes time to sit in the tea room is to avoid his dad who is alcoholic and abusive. Sam has been a virtual dad to Hally, encouraging him in his studies and steadying him against the nastiness of his home life.
Hally’s hatred for his dad becomes more and more obvious as he awaits calls from his mother updating his father’s medical condition and whether his father will be coming home from the hospital.
Slowly, history lessons become personal. Jesus, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin and even Shakespeare and Tolstoy become contentious subjects leading to arguments overlaid with pleasant memories of games of chess and flying kites. Willie and Sam’s upcoming dance competition comes in for abrasive analysis by Hally who finally, overcome by his hatred for his dad, attacks his best friend in a humiliating way that spells the end of their friendship.
Watching these three actors is an incredible experience. As Willie, the slower, funnier tea room worker, Sahr Ngaujah, often the butt of the jokes, never loses his humanity. Noah Robbins finds all the complexity in the adolescent Harold, and Leon Addison Brown makes dignity palpable and believable as Sam.
Christopher H. Barreca’s set catches the period and the milieu with its posters and worn-out furniture while Susan Hilferty’s costumes subtly bring out the personalities of the characters. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting slowly became drearier as the late afternoon wears on affecting the mood. Special mention has to be made of dialect coach Barbara Rubin who was able to get each actor to speak with a convincing South African accent without being incomprehensible.
“Master Harold”…and the Boys (extended through December 11, 2016)
Irene Diamond Stage, Pershing Square Signature Theatre Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission