“Master Harold”…and the Boys, at Gloucester Stage Company


Through August 12, 2012
On those occasions when great writing, stunning performances and superb direction collide on stage, the result can be a theatrical experience from which it can take a while to come down – for the audience as well as the actors.

The current Gloucester Stage Company production of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”… and the Boys is such an occasion.

If “Master Harold”… and the Boys were merely about the evils of apartheid in 1950s South Africa, Fugard’s semi-autobiographical play might well be outdated. But the GSC’s current production underscores the play’s timeless themes of humanity’s capacity for good and our maddening tendency toward bigotry and hate.

The opening scene takes place on a wet and windy afternoon in St. George’s Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Sam (played by Johnny Lee Davenport) is a middle aged black man dressed as a waiter. He sits at a table idly thumbing through a comic book while Willie (Anthony Wills, Jr.), also a fortyish black man, is on his knees scrubbing the floor.

From their conversation we learn that they are both very much looking forward to entering the ballroom dancing grand championship with their respective lady friends in two weeks. Willie is frustrated because his partner won’t practice with him, and Sam reminds him that it’s because he beats her when she makes mistakes in the waltz.

“That takes the pleasure out of ballroom dancing,” he scolds.

A teenage white boy quietly enters as Sam is demonstrating the proper dance technique while Willie sings the tune. (Neither can afford to play the juke box.) When Harold, the shop owner’s son, makes his presence known, both black men affect a more businesslike demeanor. But it’s clear that “Hally” (played by Peter Mark Kendall) is not there to chastise Sam and Willie, having a warm and affectionate relationship with these men he has known his entire life.

Hally is merely making his usual daily after-school stop, and Sam informs him that his mother has just left to bring Hally’s crippled father home after a long hospital stay. This news greatly upsets Hally, who dreads his alcoholic father’s disruptive presence in the home.

Soon, however, Hally and Sam begin talking about Hally’s school work and they begin debating who are the greatest historical figures. There is clearly a bond between the two, who enjoy these intellectual sparring matches. They reminisce about the old days when Hally’s family owned a boarding house. As a little boy, Hally would escape the family tensions by spending as much time as he could in the black servants’ quarters with Sam and Willie, much to his parents’ disapproval.

Hally finds himself caught up in Sam’s and Willie’s enthusiastic anticipation of the upcoming ballroom dancing championship and he forgets his troubles as he decides to write a school composition about the big event.

But when this pleasant reverie is interrupted by a phone call from Hally’s mother informing Hally that his father is indeed coming home, another, much uglier, side of Hally rears its head. We witness his conflicted adolescent angst greatly magnified by the poisonous racial attitudes in which he was raised. He pulls white rank and lashes out at Sam, who has been more a father to him than his real father ever was.

Johnny Lee Davenport brings dignity and passion to the role of Sam. It’s easy to see why, in 2011, Boston Magazine named Davenport Boston’s Best Actor.

In the challenging role of Hally, Peter Mark Kendall demonstrates the emotional range to make his character both likable and capable of the ugliest kind of bigotry and betrayal. Kendall comes from a South African family, although he was born just after his family moved to the United States.

Anthony Wills, Jr. delivers a strong and energetic performance in the less prominent but no less crucial role of Willie.

“Master Harold”… and the Boys is a political play, to be sure. It was banned in Fugard’s native South Africa and his writing got the playwright expelled from the country. But rather than preaching, Fugard lets the interactions between these fully developed characters speak for themselves.

Master Harold is much more a work of art than a polemic, and as such it posits no easy answers.

“Master Harold”…and the Boys runs through August 12 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Show times: Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees on August 4 and August 11 at 3 p.m.; Sunday performances August 5 and August 12 at 4 p.m. For reservations, phone the box office at 978-281-4433 or visit www.gloucesterstage.com/.

“Master Harold”… and the Boys, by Athol Fugard. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord. Costume Design, Molly Trainer. Lighting Design, Russ Swift. Sound Design, Chris Bocchiaro. Production Stage Manager, Maureeen Lane. Dialect Coach, Ron Carlos. Ballroom Dancing Coach, Marlena Yannetti. Featuring Johnny Lee Davenport, Peter Mark Kendall and Anthony Wills, Jr.

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2 Responses to ““Master Harold”…and the Boys, at Gloucester Stage Company”

  1. 1 ‘Crimes of the Heart’ at Gloucester Stage Company « Mark Sardella
  2. 2 GSC’s ‘Miss Daisy’ Is a Funny, Moving Ride | Mark Sardella

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