"Master Harold" and the boys
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., June 21, 2002
"Master Harold" -- and the boys: Unexpected PowerSanta Cruz Center for Culture,
through June 30
Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min
How best to encourage you to see this Pro Arts Collective production of Athol Fugard's "Master Harold" ... and the boys at the Santa Cruz Center for Culture? Fugard's play is sneaky, and so is this production. While it's obvious from Tomas Salas' set design, with its omnipresent standing jukebox, that we're observing a story from the middle part of the last century, and while it's obvious from the lilting Afrikaans dialect of the characters Willie and Sam that we're watching a play that is South African in origin, what isn't obvious is what the play is about. At least, not immediately obvious.
The plot may at first seem mundane: Willie is supposed to participate in a ballroom dancing competition, but he's had an argument with his girlfriend. Actually, he's beaten her up, and she doesn't want to have anything to do with him. His co-worker, Sam, an accomplished dancer, encourages him to make it up, but Willie wants a new partner. Into the mix comes Harold, the teenage son of the owners of the tearoom where Willie and Sam work and where the action of the play takes place. Harold has his own frustrations. He isn't a particularly good student, but, more importantly, his alcoholic father is being released from the hospital. Harold believes this will interfere with the closeness he's experienced with his mother since his father's hospitalization.
Joey Hood plays the teenage Harold with all the exuberant youthfulness he can muster. Hood is a bit old for the role, but he is more than passable, as is his English dialect. Boyd Vance's Sam is amusing, wise, and in control, an authority figure to replace Harold's obviously often-absent parents. While Noel Kent Smith's Willie isn't as accomplished a presentation as Hood's and Vance's, he doesn't get in the way. That may seem like faint praise, but I don't mean it that way. Often, actors do get in the way, and the audience can't see the play for the performances.
First-time director Maurice Moore makes some ineffective choices as well. He often asks his actors to move for no discernible reason and sometimes ignores Fugard's clear intent by having one of them speak directly to the audience. However, this extraneous movement and direct address don't obscure the heart of Fugard's play, during the course of which we discover that Sam and Willie have been surrogate parents to Harold since he was a boy. Now a boy no longer, Harold wants to control his own life in every way possible, including exercising the power that whites in South Africa could claim in the mid-part of the last century. When Sam, in a sincerely friendly and caring way, attempts to advise Harold about his parents, Harold rejects him by spitting in Sam's face and talking about Sam's "nigger's ass."
Again, Fugard's play sneaks up on you. After watching the first half, I wasn't expecting what I saw in the second. It made sense, but I didn't expect it. Didn't expect to shed any tears. Didn't expect to walk away, shaking my head at the insidious nature of racism, my culture's and my own. I didn't expect it at all.