"Master Harold . . . and the boys," Athol Fugard's guilt-ridden autobiographical play about a white South African teenager and the black men who work for his parents, is designed to deliver a slap of shame to whites and a jolt of justification and righteous anger to blacks. And this is exactly what the Studio Theatre's new production of the 1982 play does. Powered by Thomas W. Jones II's kinetic directing and a trio of fine performances, led by an electric James Brown-Orleans, the play knocks the audience flat on the canvas.
On a rainy day in 1950, schoolboy Harold, nicknamed Hally (Steven Eskay), stops after school at the tearoom owned by his parents to pass the time with two longtime family servants, black men both: the willing, if not-too-bright, Willie (Michael Anthony Williams) and the warmhearted Sam (Brown-Orleans). Hally is shaken almost as soon as he enters by news that Sam has gotten over the phone--Hally's alcoholic father may be coming home from the hospital today.
Though he can't quite admit it to himself, Hally has been hoping that the only way Dad would leave the hospital was feet first. As he waits for a confirming phone call from his mother, he talks with Sam about the past and about a ballroom dancing contest Willie plans to enter--all the while convincing himself that Sam has probably gotten the news wrong. But Sam hasn't.
It becomes clear that the neglected Hally was to all intents and purposes raised by Sam, that this black servant is his "true" father. It also becomes clear that in order to deny his hatred of his actual father, Hally will have to direct that hatred at another target--and we have a pretty good idea who that target will be.
The climax of the play, in which the white spoiled brat turns on the saintly black servant who has done him nothing but good, is a knockout. In fact, the ending is so explosive that it almost makes you forget that up until that point there hasn't really been any play. "Master Harold . . . and the boys" runs only 80 minutes, and it's still an hour too long.
Fugard's way of conveying Sam and Hally's relationship isn't to show us but to tell us. We hear lots of stories about the past. The play doesn't move into the theatrical present tense until the end. This strands the actors, who aren't given anything much to play now. Sensing the hollowness in the script, Jones fills the stage with movement, trying to cover up that not much is actually happening in that tearoom other than Hally's getting more and more frightened and frustrated about his father.
Hally is a devastating self-portrait of pampered white shallowness and selfishness. For some, the most wince-inducing moments in the play may not be Hally's final outburst as much as his whining melodramatically to these two stoic, uncomplaining South African blacks about how awful his problems are.
As an exercise in white guilt, "Master Harold . . ." is peerless. And it suffers from the usual limitations guilt imposes on a work of art: The guilty person is the dramatic center, and no one else is allowed to have full humanity, only to be the guilty one's victims. Though Fugard allows him an outburst, Sam isn't permitted to be fully, humanly angry. At the end, he has to turn back into that recurrent white fantasy--The All-Forgiving Black Man (see "The Green Mile" for a contemporary version). This is an illustration of how awful white people are, but the awful white person still gets to hog the play.
Master Harold . . . and the boys, by Athol Fugard. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Set, Daniel Conway; costumes, Robin Stapley; lights, Michael Giannitti; sound, Tony Angelini; props, Stacy Bond. At the Studio Theatre through Feb. 13. Call 202-332-3300.
CAPTION: A peerless exercise in white guilt: Steven Eskay, left, is the autobiographical title character, and James Brown-Orleans is his servant in Athol Fugard's "Master Harold . . . and the boys" at Studio.
CAPTION: James Brown-Orleans, left, and Steven Eskay in Athol Fugard's "Master Harold . . . and the boys."