Clyde Tyron Harper, Tyler Madden, & Cameron Murphy. Photo: Bunbury Theatre
Master Harold and the Boys
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Baron Kelly
Review by Ben Gierhart
Entire contents copyright are © 2018 by Ben Gierhart. All rights reserved.
Bunbury Theatre has offered an impressive season this year, with John Logan’s Red serving as its crowning jewel. I have to say I was unfamiliar with Master Harold and the Boys going into this production, but it is safe to say that Bunbury rides the momentum generated by Red and ends this stellar season on a high note.
Originally opening in 1982, Master Harold depicts a snapshot of life in apartheid-era South Africa. From a playwriting perspective, the play is a stunning display of depth in economy. It’s a small cast of only three actors, with the entirety of the story taking place in a tea shop, and yet there is no loss of trenchant insight or emotional connection to the outside world.
Sam (Clyde Tyrone Harper) and Willie (Tyler Madden) are servants who have essentially raised Master Harold, or “Hally,” (Cameron Murphy) his entire life. They work in a tea shop owned by Hally’s mother where the play takes place. Business is nonexistent thanks to a long, rainy afternoon, so the servants decide to while away the time by practicing for an upcoming ballroom dancing competition. Eventually, Hally arrives, and with him, he brings the tacit arrogance and superiority associated with that time’s particular brand of racism.
It’s an interesting characterization because it is honest in its depiction – what with Hally not being an evil, overt racist but a product of his time and experience. Murphy does a fine job in his portrayal, marking Hally with humanity and youthful innocence at one moment as well as ugly candor, youthful impetuousness, and other detestable traits in the next.
As the servants, Harper and Madden bear the lion’s share of weight both narratively and thematically. Madden rises to the occasion each and every time he’s called upon by accenting what could be a somber play with some comic relief. Madden also makes the reveal that he beats his girlfriend when she forgets her ballroom steps an earnest one. These characters are complex individuals with multitudes, another rich detail of an economical script.
It is Harper, however, who truly shines in this production. The character is difficult. Sam is sagacious yet subservient, friendly yet proud, knowledgeable about so many things and conspicuously uneducated on others. There is a moment near the end of the play that is only earned by straddling the line of these dichotomies with skill, and Harper does not disappoint. His performance is the production’s most masterful.
The set and lighting are beautiful and appropriate due to the work of Set and Lighting Designer Kevin Gawley and his assistant Megan Meyer. The South African accent is a notoriously difficult one for actors, and there is a lot of success in this production thanks to Dialect Coach Dru Pilmer. Director Baron Kelly marries all of these disparate parts into one finely crafted piece of theater.
If there is anything to be critical of it is that a play like this makes it appear as though the hard work of conquering racism is past us. It is easy to watch this play in a comfortable seat and imagine that the monsters of yesterday are secure in the closet or even vanquished to the shadows completely. I think the greater, more challenging viewing of this play is to witness it and realize that the monsters have escaped again, that this play not only depicts our past but our possible future as well.
Master Harold and the Boys
June 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22 & 23 @ 7:30pm
June 10, 17 & 24 @ 2:00
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40203
Ben Gierhart is a local actor, playwright, and director who has worked with several companies in town including The Bard’s Town, Pandora Productions, Savage Rose, and Centerstage. Ben serves on the board and in the acting ensemble for The Bard’s Town Theatre, and he is also a founding member of the Derby City Playwrights, a collective dedicated to creating new and exciting plays in Louisville.