By: Skip Sheffield
“Master Harold… and the Boys” is a 30-year-old period piece, yet its main theme of the destructive qualities of racism is as relevant as ever.
“Master Harold” won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for its South African playwright, Anthol Fugard, and it still is timely. The play runs through April 29 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
Inspired by Fugard’s own early life in South Africa, “Master Harold” is set in 1950, two years after South Africa enacted its strict apartheid laws, segregating the Caucasian and native African races. In effect South Africa’s native people became second-class citizens.
Those who are old enough to remember segregation in the USA may recall the segregationist rally call: “Separate but Equal.”
The fact of the matter is that once races are arbitrarily separated, one class inevitably emerges with greater power and privilege.
The characters in “Master Harold” have been friends since the title character was a little boy. Willie (Summer Hill Seven) and Sam (Paul Bodie) are middle-aged waiters at the St. George’s Park Tea Room, owned by the parents of Harold (Jared McGuire, looking older than his character), who is now 17.
The play begins on a light note on a rainy day as Willie and Sam banter about a forthcoming ballroom dance competition.
The rain never stops on Michael Amico’s fantastic set, and it is a forewarning of storms to come.
Sam is clearly the intellectual superior to the smiling, obsequious Willie. Yet Willie has a dark side. He has beaten up his girlfriend and dance partner Hilda and Sam chides him for his cowardice. Something is eating at Willie.
Harold, known as Hallie, makes his entrance and promptly begins studying for his exams. Hallie seems distracted and upset. We learn his father is an alcoholic and in the hospital. The play is staged in just 90 minutes without intermission. As Hallie’s frustration and irritation grows he begins to lash back at his old friends.
The key performance is Paul Bodie’s Sam. This is Bodie’s third time as the wise, patient but proud Sam, and he has honed the role to near perfection. Sam reacts to Hallie’s cruel attacks with infinite sorrow, not hateful anger.
There is an infinite sorrow at the bottom of “Master Harold.” It is founded on the basic injustice and cruelty of apartheid. It was Fugard’s writing that was key in swaying world opinion against South African and its racist policies. So this play is not only a fine, vivid performance, it serves as a reminder that the racism we see to this very day serves no constructive good and in fact acts as an undermining force in the principles of democracy, equality and freedom of speech.
Tickets are $55 with student tickets available at $10. Call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.