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“Master Harold” and the boys

Athol Fugard directs a fine, yet harrowing, production of his most famous work.

Noah Robbins, Sahr Ngaujah and Leon Addison Brown, in a scene from “Master Harold … and the boys” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Noah Robbins, Sahr Ngaujah and Leon Addison Brown, in a scene from “Master Harold … and the boys” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Master Harold”…and the Boys is probably the best-known work by South African master playwright Athol Fugard.  The latest production at the Signature Theatre is the clearest and most subtle of the several I’ve seen.  Under Mr. Fugard’s astute direction, the play unrolls at a surprisingly leisurely pace, its microcosmic look at 1950’s South African Apartheid society making its mark at first with whispered indications of discontent and finally with an explosion of hatred and disloyalty.  A climactic act twists the futures of the three characters, exposing the racial hatred that kept South Africa a pariah nation (except for its gold and diamonds, of course) for many decades.  Mr. Fugard brilliantly focuses on his nation’s sins on a human level.

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.

Leon Addison Brown and Sahr Ngaujah in a scene from “Master Harold … and the boys” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Leon Addison Brown and Sahr Ngaujah in a scene from “Master Harold … and the boys” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

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

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (164 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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