The time is 1950. The place is the St. George's Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, the Detroit of South Africa. On a rainy afternoon free of customers, the tiny café's black employees, Sam and Willie, kill time practicing choreography for an annual ballroom dancing contest. Willie, the younger of the two middle-aged men, is unhappy with the lady-friend he's partnering. She misses rehearsals and doesn't know the moves, he says. Sam, a seasoned ballroom competitor, suggests that the frequent "hidings" Willie's been administering might be too harsh a punishment. Let up on the beatings, he advises, and the girl might get in step.

That casual blending of grace and violence goes to the heart of Athol Fugard's great 1982 play "Master Harold"...and the Boys. A masterful and elegantly performed production of it by African American Repertory Theater is currently under way in DeSoto. In an uninterrupted 90 minutes, the three actors in the cast expertly craft the tension leading to the gut-wrenching turning point of Fugard's story of a white teenager's sudden shift in attitude toward the black men he's known all his life.

The "boys" of the title are Sam and Willie, played by AART company members William "Bill" Earl Ray and Christopher Dontrell Piper. "Master Harold," played by Equity actor Andrew Bourgeois, is the 17-year-old son of the tearoom's white owners. In the perversity of South African apartheid, even white children were regarded as masters over other races.

Confrontation is on the menu between William “Bill” Earl Ray and Andrew Bourgeois in AART’s “Master Harold”...and the Boys.
Buddy Myers
Confrontation is on the menu between William “Bill” Earl Ray and Andrew Bourgeois in AART’s “Master Harold”...and the Boys.

Details

“Master Harold”…and the Boys continues through November 1 at African American Repertory Theater, DeSoto. Call 972-572-0998.

Early in the play, it's established that Sam has cared for the boy for so long he can call him by the nickname "Hally." (The more servile Willie uses the formal "Master Harold.") There is trouble in Hally's household; his much-despised father is an alcoholic about to be released from a long hospital stay. Hally retreats after school to the café, where the men serve him soup and milk and cluck over him as he does his homework. Sam engages Hally in mild literary debates about "men of magnitude" such as Churchill, Tolstoy, Lincoln and Darwin.

On this rainy evening, Hally and Sam also revisit memories from Hally's childhood. There was a long ago day when Sam built a kite from scraps of paper and pieces of a tomato box and helped the boy fly it in a park. And there were times Hally fled his father's drunken rages by seeking refuge in Sam's tiny room at the back of his parents' boarding house. Clearly Sam is the better father figure.

For the first hour, "Master Harold"...and the Boys moves slowly, offering more poetry than plot. Fugard's dialogue is a swirl of metaphors using ballroom dancing and kite-making to lay the foundation of his real message about the upside-down power structure of apartheid. There's innocence in that picture of a man and boy flying a kite on a sunny day. Until, that is, the black man finally reveals why he built that kite for the white boy and why he had to leave the child to fly it alone.

Fugard's woozy allusions to waltzing couples and soaring kites recur thematically, taking on more substantive meaning as we get to know the characters. As comfortable as they are with each other, Hally and Sam show signs of long-simmering resentments. Hally laughs at a memory of bursting into Sam's room and finding him in bed with a woman. "You should have knocked," Sam says.

When a phone call from Hally's mother ignites emotional turmoil within the boy, it leads to a shocking confrontation with Sam—and an act so personally insulting it's not clear whether either will ever trust the other again. Certainly, they'll never feel as close as they were the day they flew that kite. Hally forcefully asserts himself as "master" over his closest caretaker.

Fugard's play weaves its spell brilliantly, allowing the audience to empathize with all three characters. We're sorry Hally's had to suffer neglectful parents who have forged a hole in his young heart. We feel Sam's deep love for Hally, and his hurt when the boy turns on him. We ache as Willie is wracked with sorrow at what transpires between Sam and Hally.

If the end of South African apartheid really had been the end of racism, perhaps this play would feel like a relic. It doesn't. The shame of it is that "Master Harold"...and the Boys can feel so relevant and contemporary to an American audience. Listen to two minutes of any right-wing talk radio show to know that it will be a long time before this play will be regarded as a quaint museum piece. (A new film version shot in South Africa and starring Freddie Highmore as Hally and Ving Rhames as Sam will be released in 2010.)

In its latest in a series of great productions, African American Rep once again proves why it's currently the strongest small theater company in North Texas, one that deserves a larger, better venue than DeSoto's Corner Theater. Directed by Sharon Benge, AART's "Master Harold" looks and sounds just right, with a detailed set by Brynn Bristol, period costumes by Regina Washington, atmospheric sound design by Craig Wills and warm lighting by Nikki DeShea Smith.

With such strong technical support, the actors are able to give performances that are models of subtlety and realism. As Sam, Bill Ray is a study in quiet dignity; he's almost too soft-spoken in the first half of the play. Then comes his character's flash point, which threatens violence, but is tempered by breathtaking self-control. Remarkable acting here.

As Willie, Christopher Piper, a standout over the past year in plays at AART and at The Dallas Hub Theater, is the actor as mindful reactor. With fewer lines than the other two characters, Willie must busy himself tidying the tea room, filling salt cellars and doing other little tasks. But with this actor in the role, Willie's actively inside every moment. Watch how Piper tightens his body when the phone rings—it's always Master Harold's mother, barking orders through her son—and how he reflexively drops to his knees and starts polishing the floor. Willie all too well knows his place in the tiny societal microcosm of the tearoom.

Then there's Andrew Bourgeois, a senior theater student at University of North Texas, giving a superb performance in the play's most complex role. As Hally, Bourgeois manages the South African accent admirably and he makes an interesting visual transformation from gangly schoolboy back to playful child (in the memory scenes) and then to cocky young bigot. During Sam's long speech at the end, Bourgeois remains nearly motionless for many minutes. But his eyes fill with tears and you can sense his pulse quickening. As his Hally turns to walk out into the rain, he seems physically aged by what's just happened. He has become Master Harold now, a tortured soul whose childhood has been lost like a kite from a broken string.

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