'I don't suppose I will ever deal with the shame that overwhelmed me the second after I had done that," said Athol Fugard, recalling an afternoon in his South African boyhood when he rode up on a bicycle behind his black friend and mentor, Sam Semela, called out Semela's name and spat in his face.
"Master Harold . . . and the Boys" at the South Coast Repertory represents Fugard's attempt to come to grips with that shame, the memory of which remained buried in him for 40 years. It's the most autobiographical of his plays to date, but it transcends the particulars of that day to bring us not just the shame of an individual, but shame's ugly, unmanageable weight and its bitter repercussions. On Tuesday, when Hally (the Fugard surrogate) spit in Sam's face, the opening-night audience made a sound as though it had been punched in the gut.
As in the play, Fugard's mother owned a cafe called the St. George's Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth. Though only 10, Fugard ran the place in her absence with the help of black employees--Semela chief among them. One night Semela was called on to haul Fugard's drunken father out of an all-white saloon and carry him home while the boy, stung with mortification, tagged along.
This, and some other details, are recalled on a rainy afternoon at the cafe as Willie and Sam are cleaning up and Hally (now 17) is in from school to do his homework on one of the little tables. What makes "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" a powerful work of art rather than a True Confessions piece of theatrical reportage is how well it captures the indirection by which one action influences another without seeming to, and how skillfully Fugard plants the small detail that doesn't, at first, seem to belong to a pattern. Only in retrospect are things clear, he seems to say, if they're ever clear at all. And then it's too late.
"Master Harold . . . and the Boys" runs without an intermission, and the first half--by design--is as dilatory as the second is enthralling. That's the way it often happens when people do something emotionally catastrophic. The occasion can be ordinary.
In this case, Hally's mother phones from the hospital--after Hally, Sam and Willie have been passing a jocular afternoon--to say that his invalid father is coming home. Hally is reminded of overflowing bedpans, of another unwelcome intrusion into his free rein and adolescent haplessness, and of shame. Honor your father, Sam tells him; you hate him because you love him. Hally turns on Sam with the quickest weapon an impotent white boy has to use against a black man here--apartheid's social presumption: Who are you to tell me?
F. Scott Fitzgerald has a line about how it's not given to us to know just when it is that the word comes that wounds or heals irrevocably. In "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" we do know when the word comes. And when it does, the battle line is drawn, the faces of two people who love each other harden and the fight steps outside, where it can never be recalled.
"Master Harold" shares with Fugard's other works and the best of South African literature an unusually clear sense of the moral imperative--perhaps that's the byproduct of living in a country where every action is reflected on for its potential for being monitored and punished. Sam is proud, and driven to anger, but he knows that Hally is upset. Still, there's a limit. In the name of your manhood, he tells Hally, don't cross it. An American playwright would be hard-pressed to use the word "manhood" without being ironic, anachronistic or sexist. But here we know what Sam means: If you're not responsible, you're lost.
There are any number of compelling touches in this play and production. How often in life, and how rarely in the theater, will someone back off after a fight to try and make amends, as Sam does here? And when Willie takes out that coin to play Sarah Vaughan on the jukebox, the gesture indicates how truly awful that fight has been (it's his bus money); the respite is thrilling, like a blast of cool air into a suffocatingly hot room.
(This is not, strictly speaking, a South African play, aside from its particulars--the shadow of apartheid here is not terribly different from the shadow of racism elsewhere. It's about an abuse of power which could so easily happen here that, listening to the music, you think, "Small world, isn't it?")
Your reviewer found Sydney Hibbert's Sam a touch self-assured, even righteous for someone who senses the tragic implications of what's transpiring. This turns out to be a director's choice, as Martin Benson wants to show us how Sam has used Hally's books to wiser ends than Hally. Hibbert is an otherwise forceful, compelling figure, especially when we see his generous mouth trembling in wordless rage at Hally's goading, and the thoughtfulness with which he tries to resist.