Falcon Faces the Repercussions of Racism in Master Harold…And the Boys

Review by Laurel Humes of Master Harold…And the Boys: Falcon Theatre

Racism – personal and institutional – is explored in Falcon Theatre’s excellent production of Athol Fugard’s acclaimed play Master Harold …And the Boys.

It is 1950 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Apartheid, the country’s system of legal racial segregation and discrimination, had formally begun in 1948, and would continue until 1991. Fugard’s play was produced in 1982 on Broadway – initially banned in South Africa.

Those facts are important as background, because Master Harold is not a history lesson. At first, you would hardly guess there’s a dark cloud of legal racism hanging over the lives of the three characters.

Willie (Deondra Kamau Means) and Sam (Ken Early) work at the tea room owned by 17-year-old Hally’s (Rupert Daniel Spraul) parents. Willie and Sam are middle-aged black men. Hally – the Master Harold of the play’s title – is white. Willie and especially Sam have cared for Hally his whole life.

The entire play takes place on a rainy afternoon when Hally returns from school. Much of the conversation is a warm reminiscence between Sam and Hally – when they flew a kite together, the schoolwork they’ve always done together. And the time Sam helped Hally rescue his publicly drunk father.

Sam is clearly the father figure to Hally, whose own war-injured, alcoholic father is currently in the hospital. But in a series of phone calls from his mother, Hally learns his father is coming home. Now the drinking, fighting and constant caregiving will resume.

That is the emotional turning point of the play. Hally has no power over his own circumstances. But, just because he is white in 1950 in South Africa, he has power over Sam. Hally turns his anger on Sam, with words and then a hateful gesture that produces a gasp from the audience.

The actors in Falcon’s Master Harold are superb. Spraul, still an acting student at CCM, more than holds his own with the more experienced Early and Means. The role encompasses a range of adolescent but real emotions, from cocky to frightened to furious. Spraul makes them all believable.

Early plays Sam with dignity and love. He brings the audience with him as he experiences shock, hurt and his own anger when Hally turns on him. We see his internal struggle to move past the hateful encounter toward – maybe – reconciliation.

The playwright must have known his audiences would need some comic relief, so he created Willie. Means makes the most of the physical and scripted comedy he is given. He also shows us a 1950’s South African man who is always aware of his “place” – he is the one who continually addresses Hally as Master Harold.

The May 11 show was unexpectedly special, as director Ted Weil arranged for pre-show remarks by Dr. Eric Jackson, associate professor of history at Northern Kentucky University. Dr. Jackson was joined post-show by the cast, with audience members also invited to join the discussion. Since that was a one-night-only event, I continue to urge Falcon to include director’s notes in its program in the belief that an educated audience is a better one.

Master Harold … And the Boys continues at Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St., Newport, through May 20. Go to www.falcontheatre.net for ticket information.

Comments are closed.