On Thursday, April 14th, Mortall Coile Theatre Company founder and artistic director Jesse R. Gephart said, “I’ve waited two years to produce this show,” during his opening-night statement for “Master Harold” … and the boys, which he also directed. Well, we are here to tell you: it was worth the wait — the production is nothing short of phenomenal. Gephart delivers a perfectly paced ride through the play’s shifting moods.
Athol Fugard’s 1982 Yale Repertory Theatre and 1982 Broadway drama, “Master Harold” … and the boys, is set in 1950 in South Africa. In 90 minutes, it serves up a huge slice-of-life during those times of apartheid. Indeed, it gives a scathing indictment of the inequalities and injustices inherent in that society. And we are able to see how the system cripples everybody, not just the oppressed.
“Master Harold” is called “Hally” throughout most of the play. He is 17 years old and white. “The boys” — Sam and Willie — are two middle-aged black servants. The words “master” and “boys,” in this context, speak volumes about the subject matter.
On this rainy afternoon, Sam and Willie are on duty in the St. Georges Park Tea Room, located in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and owned by Hally’s family. During their spare time, Sam is coaching Willie as he practices ballroom-dancing steps for an upcoming competition. Hally comes home from school, and their interaction begins.
We quickly learn that “the boys” have been part of Hally’s life since he was quite small. Indeed, Sam has been very much a mentor to him and a protector. Sam has always helped Hally with his homework, and he does so on this afternoon as Hally begins work on an essay for school. Subjects that they discuss include historical social reformers (what irony!) and dancing as a metaphor for life. They also reminisce, dwelling on fond memories of Hally’s childhood experiences that include Sam and Willie.
Quite unexpectedly, Hally’s attitude shifts — he becomes detached and much colder toward Sam and Willie — and the dynamic is suddenly that of the master-servant type rather than an interaction between beloved companions. The above-mentioned metaphor of dancing and another involving a “miracle” of kite-flying offer possible escape routes from the quagmire into which their relationship has begun to sink. Pay special attention to the concept of “cripples dancing” and how it can apply to every parallel in the metaphor. Also, note the important difference between Hally’s and Sam’s recollections of the kite-flying incident.
The set (designed by Thomas Mauney) is a very realistic café from the era, complete with functional jukebox. Mauney’s lighting is also spot-on.
Gil Faison gives us the perfect Sam. He clearly has a true affection for Hally and for Willie. Sam is savvy in his approach as he tries to guide Hally, and Faison’s expressions and body language keep the audience clued-in to Sam’s goals and strategies.
George Hill is also quite good as Willie. Willie is clearly enthusiastic about the upcoming dance competition. As Willy practices, Hill’s facial expressions are priceless. Equally clear is Willie’s clueless-ness about the problems inherent in his attitude that condones beating women. Hill plays this quite well.
Ben Pluska shows us a Hally who is clearly accustomed to his life of privilege. Pluska infuses the character with an aloofness and a quality that we can only describe as “unintentional arrogance” — both appropriate for this character. Beneath the surface, we can see a vulnerability that Hally struggles to hide, even from himself.
It is definitely worth mentioning that the script indicts sexism just as deeply as it does racism. Remember that Willie’s problems with his preparation for the dance contest are of his own creation, and that the oppressor cripples himself by his very act of asserting his power. And note that Willie is as oblivious to his own self-inflicted injury as Hally is to his.
One final word: Sonorous Road Productions in Raleigh is a perfectly suited venue for this show. Put attending “Master Harold” … and the boys at the top of your to-do list. The show only runs April 16, 17, and 21-24.
SECOND OPINION: April 17th Raleigh, NC Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/04/mortall-coiles-rendition-of-athol-fugards-master-harold-and-the-boys-is-most-impressive/.
Mortall Coile Theatre Company presents “MASTER HAROLD” … AND THE BOYS at 8 p.m. April 16, 3 p.m. April 17, 8 p.m. April 21-23, and 3 p.m. April 24 at Sonorous Road Productions, 209 Oberlin Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27605.
TICKETS: $19.90 ($17.80 students and seniors), including fees.
BOX OFFICE: 919-803-3798 or http://www.sonorousroad.com/master-harold (bottom right).
“Master Harold” … and the boys (1982 Yale Repertory Theatre and 1982 Broadway drama): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/2248/master-haroldand-the-boys (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.ibdb.com/Show/View/5943 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%22Master_Harold%22…and_the_Boys (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://www.steppenwolf.org/_pdf/studyguides/master_harold_studyguide.pdf (Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, IL).
Athol Fugard (South African playwright, born 1932): http://www.britannica.com/biography/Athol-Fugard (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/4353 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0297538/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athol_Fugard (Wikipedia).
“Master Harold” … and the boys (1985 TV movie): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089564/ (Internet Movie Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_Harold…and_the_Boys_%281985_film%29 (Wikipedia).
Jesse R. Gephart (Raleigh, NC director and Mortall Coile Theatre Company founder and artistic director): https://www.facebook.com/jrgephart (Facebook page) and http://www.abouttheartists.com/artists/394495-jesse-gephart (AboutTheArtists bio).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.