The IU Theatre’s production of South African playwright Athol Fugard’s "Master Harold" and the boys is something very special. It’s a play so rich and so thoughtful that it minutely documents the facts of a moment in time, a1950 afternoon in a tearoom, and at the same time makes those facts resonate into our century and around the world.
Master Harold, Tom Conner, is a sixteen-year-old South African schoolboy come to his mother’s tearoom for lunch and homework. The boys are twenty-five year old Sam, Carmund White, Jr., and thirty-something Willie, Andy Alphonse. Sam and Willie have been part of the tearoom staff and part of the family for most of Master Harold’s life. There’s a lot of history and a lot of love among these three. Sam especially, has taken care of Master Harold, played with him and even studied with him. But always, just an awkward sentence or a misplaced gesture away is the continual awareness of apartheid, the notion of the separation of black and white and the inbred belief in inherent white supremacy and privilege. One of the amazing things about "Master Harold" and the boys is the way that a rich, vibrant, funny, touching and deeply interesting life continues despite this cloud.
Director Murray McGibbon has imbued his actors with a belief in the play and in their own skills. It showed time after time as they let things happen before the audience rather than pushing or rushing. A key to the characters of "Master Harold" is the separate dialects for the boy and "the boys." I don’t know if either is correct, but there’s a richnessand a rightness about the language and delivery that both separates and occasionally unites the characters.
Designer Christopher Sinnott and the resources of the IU Theatre Department have done a lovely job with the single set of the tearoom. For many plays a simple or even barely representational set would be fine, but for "Master Harold" they’ve wisely chosen to build a room that’s detailed right down to the items in the baked goods in the display cases and even a working antique juke box. I especially enjoyed the silvery backstage rain that highlighted some of the drama with its own varied intensity.
Athol Fugard’s "Master Harold" and the boys is a remarkable piece. I am still marveling at how in the final minutes his characters became metaphors for all the history of the evils of South Africa and then back to characters again. It’s a fine piece of theatre, a richly rewarding hour and a half in a separate and much more than equal world.
"Master Harold" and the boys, plays each evening through Saturday in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre of the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center.
You can see this and other theatre and film reviews and listen to an interview with director Murray McGibbon and actor Carmund White on our web site at George Walker’s Arts Interviews .