One afternoon in a diner, two middle-aged black men run what is called a Tea House, employed by a white family somewhere in 1950s South Africa. “Master Harold” …and the Boys (directed by Philip Akin, written by Athol Fugard) makes it seem that it’s innocuous when people reminisce about the past and ponder over shared nostalgia. In this case the sharing includes two adult men of colour and a young white boy, who share more than just the bond of an employer’s son and the family’s help. The canvas: preparation for a local ball room dance competition that will be held in a few weeks in Brighton (a little town where the story is set), South Africa.
Harold (Hally) (played by James Daly) comes back from school to the diner that is run by his mother. His typical routine after school is one where he gets a bite to eat and does his homework. The two employees at the diner: Willie, actor Allan Louis (the cleaner, more reticent, shy and stumbles with his speech) and Sam, actor André Sills (the server, seemingly friendly, but quite resolute and surely the wiser of the two) are introduced. The first forty-five minutes of the play is the build-up. We spend time with these three characters as Sam is giving helpful cues to Willie, who is struggling to prepare and practise for the dance competition with his partner Hilda. Sam has diagnosed the problem and shared his piece with Willie, who half-promises to implement the learning. Willie dreams that the dance competition will be for the history books. And then in comes the young boy who has been pretty much a ward to Sam (and in part, Willie) all of his life. Now not more than a late teenager, Harold returns from school, with a school bag, homework and childish arrogance in tow.
Sam and Willie begin reminiscing with Hally of him growing up as a little boy, walking the corridors of their dwelling, uncovering stories together. They seemed to be his constant compatriots as he faced neglect from his own parents. As nostalgia turns to story-telling, Hally comes up with a brilliant idea of using the Brighton Ball-Room Dance Competition (the one Willie is preparing for) as the subject from his 500-word composition. Sam and Hally begin writing what would be the idealist image of a ‘World without collisions’.
One of the most tender experiences Hally and Sam share, is when Sam decided to make a kite for the little boy. They went up a mountain and have Hally fly the kite. The boy remembered it as one of the most beautiful experiences of his childhood. But the plot has a flip side, where in the background Harold’s mother calls from the hospital, announcing that his father will be moved back home. The father, a drunken veteran from the War, is returning home with his crippled legs despite opposition.
The moment Harold hangs up, his rage knows no end and his father becomes the object of his wrath. This is when the plot turns nostalgia to mayhem. Sam, in his gentle yet somewhat righteous manner, counsels Hally to be kind to his father. The boy’s immaturity can’t distinguish between friendly advice and a lecture and he lashes out in the most hateful manner. The words and actions are mostly irrational, yet expose the deepest nature of human prejudice, which though spoken in a play written more than forty years ago, rang true just as much as I sat watching the story in 2018.
Solid performances by André Sills playing Sam and Allan Louis playing Willie, particularly with such reticence and conscious restraint. James Daly as Harold (Hally) was well suited.
Harold and the Boys is about intolerance and how its roots run deep, still may be moderated by kindness and love, but unfortunately not fully erased from our human inadequacies. Directed by Philip Akin, a simple plot, a simple setting over half a century ago, still speaks to how further divided and disintegrated we are in the most ‘civilized’ century of human history.
“Master Harold” … and the Boys is playing at the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts, 5170 Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine, Montréal, QC H3W 1M7: January 21 – February 11, 2018. For tickets and showtimes, click HERE.