“Master Harold” … And The Boys

Written on August 1st, 2016

Age, Race and Discrimination

We feel despair for the bigotry rearing its ugly head around the world today.  “Master Harold” … and The Boys now on stage at the Shaw Festival reminds us that racism was entrenched in 1950 and shows us that it is taught, continues to be taught, and therefore continues to spread its hideousness.

This play is intended to make you uncomfortable, explaining that we aren’t born racist; it’s a learned behaviour.  The story of Master Harold is a very unsettling and anguished examination of racism.  Set in South Africa, this play demonstrates how apartheid came about with all its disgusting precepts.Master Harold

Harold is a white, teenaged school boy.  As his classes end for the day, he goes to his mother’s tea room, to have something to eat and then do his homework.  His mother isn’t there, but the two black employees are cleaning up.  There are no customers on this rainy day in the beach village.  The two men are discussing ballroom dancing – the younger, Willie, is practising for an upcoming competition and gets advice from the older, Sam.  It becomes apparent that Sam has acted as a father figure to young Harold, as they discuss good times in the past, such as when Sam made a kite for Hally, as Sam affectionately calls Harold.  Sam gives Hally soup, and insists that he does his homework.  All is comfortable, until Hally’s mother calls from the hospital to say that she is bringing Hally’s father home.  Hally is not happy about having his alcoholic father who lost a leg in World War II at home, demanding attention.

“Master Harold” and The Boys also tells a tale of dysfunctional family relationships.  Only Hally can criticize his drunken father. He lashes out when the black employee dares to denigrate his father.  As a youth, he is just starting to realize he has white privilege and then he comes out swinging, wielding his power, to the despair of the two black men.

Allan Louis plays Willie perfectly, respectful and almost timid when arguments break out.  Yet we know he beats his girlfriend when she doesn’t learn the dance steps quickly enough, and we can see both sides in Louis’ presentation.  André Sills is flawless as Sam, showing his parental-like care for Hally, then losing his temper when Hally lashes out.  The anguish of his situation is apparent in his eyes. James Daly gives a brilliant performance as the young Hally. He shows his troubled soul, yet blusters and bullies when he feels cornered.  He is especially good in the one-sided phone conversations with first his mother and then his father. His tone changing from demanding that his mother leave his father in the hospital, to talking gently and kindly to the father he despises.

At one point, ballroom dance becomes the topic for Hally’s school essay.  He learns that in competitive dancing, there are no collisions.   How pleasant to find a world without collisions, as suddenly everything around them collides, making life for the three characters inside this tiny tea room intolerable.

This is a gripping story, well cast and well-acted.  The three characters perfectly carry the show to its heartbreaking climax.  For challenging theatre that leaves you troubled and thinking about it for days afterwards, don’t miss this play.

“Master Harold”…And The Boys continues in repertoire at The Courthouse Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake until September 10.  For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-7429.

Photo: James Daly as Hally, with André Sills as Sam.  Photo by David Cooper.

“Master Harold”… And The Boys
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Philip Akin
Performed by Allan Louis, André Sills, James Daly
Produced by the Shaw Festival
The Courthouse Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
June 30 to September 10, 2016
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

 

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