Rare Terra Theatre Company

Long before apartheid became a choice issue of protest in this country, Athol Fugard was writing plays denouncing it. And, as you might expect, Fugard’s work has become more popular here as American protest against apartheid has heated up. But why are we so preoccupied with South Africa and not, say, Cambodia? We ignored a Khmer Rouge purge that left three million Cambodians dead, and lately we’ve supplied the Khmer Rouge with a lot more than Coca-Cola. Why should apartheid hold a sudden candle to the enduring darkness of our national apathy?

“Master Harold” . . . and the Boys is a political allegory, the story of apartheid as dramatized by two black waiters and a white prep-school boy passing a rainy afternoon in a tearoom in South Africa in 1950. It’s not a particularly innovative play artistically, and at times is dully didactic. I think you have to be politically sympathetic in order to be drawn into this play. But sympathetic in what way? Well, this is the third (and the least professional) production I’ve seen of “Master Harold” . . ., and all three times the audience has been overwhelmingly white.

The question now is: Is “Master Harold” . . . a gripping drama hell-bent on social reform, or a moral laxative for liberal whites constipated by racial guilt?

I don’t for a moment doubt Fugard’s commitment to the cause. Nor do I underestimate the public attention his plays have drawn, on an international scale, to the injustice of apartheid. What’s more, it clearly appears that Fugard’s art is the servant of his political viewpoint, and not the other way around. So, to judge this production of “Master Harold” . . . , you have to decide whether the play forcefully delivers its plea for social reform, and whether the point is not only well taken but acted upon by the audience.

The major failing of this production is the characterization of Hally, the young Master Harold, played by Guy Van Swearingen. A mistake in casting makes Hally seem twice his age–more of a full-blown yuppie than a pretentious schoolboy. This derails the play’s conflict, making it hard to appreciate why Hally, in an adolescent crisis, would find himself caught between two male role models: a drunken, crippled father, and Sam, the older of the two black waiters in Hally’s mother’s tearoom. Hally, who’s supposed to represent a new generation, has to choose between the old order and Sam’s hope for a world without prejudice. The older Hally we get here would already have made his choice.

Had director Ian Streicher posed some parallel with American yuppies–however inappropriate–it would at least have been an interpretation. But as is, the drama is defused. Swearingen’s performance only makes the situation worse. His acting is flat, with that practiced, soporific emphasis that makes everything he says and does of equal importance, and therefore of no importance at all.

Anthony Griffin (as Sam) is far more effective. He has an austere, somewhat stiff presence, and comes off as a very composed, kindly gentleman. Sam is Hally’s moral tutor, and Griffin portrays the backbone, if not the passion, that has led Sam to adopt this role. Sammy Oshin (as Willie) shows more workmanship than artistry in a minor part. Oshin is more engaging practicing for a ballroom dancing contest (a metaphor for social harmony) than when he’s left in the background, scrubbing the floor and swabbing tables and chairs. Here, of course, is more symbolism–the black man on his knees, cleaning up–which gets absurd when Willie washes the same spot a half dozen times.

So, you can see, Streicher hasn’t quite cranked this play up to its fullest impact. Moments are fumbled. When, in response to a racist joke, Sam shows Hally just what a “black ass” looks like, he moons upstage, sparing the audience the gauche reality, and the integral confrontation, that the display should create. Even the climactic moment, when Hally spits in Sam’s face, doesn’t feature enough saliva to pick up on a blotter. Relationships are fuzzy and not deeply felt. And without the substrata of anger and shame, the play doesn’t build the necessary tension. What’s left over is more a soapbox than a play, with characters signifying a social phenomenon, rather than living it out on a gut level. The audience, in turn, is allowed to conceptualize the problem of apartheid but not feel it in a tragic sense.

Yet the point is made–apartheid is bad. And Fugard’s point that racism arises from shame, and not pride, is also made. But halfway around the world, what does that have to do with us? Should we boycott American businesses that traffic with South Africa? Do a few decades of civil rights progress allow us to call the kettle black? Should we take it a step further and clean up our own act? Are we equal yet? Shall we go home from the theater and talk about it?

Talk is cheap, and that’s why I wonder what “Master Harold” . . . amounts to. We seem to pick up and discard causes as if they were fashions. Acid rain, feminism, baby seals, crack, child abuse, what next? I guess we’ll just have to wait for Time magazine to tell us what to be upset about. And once we’ve absorbed all the information we can, and talked it out over lunch, we’ll move on to the next cause celebre. I suspect that the essential reason we’re still concerned about apartheid is that we’re haunted by the guilt and anxiety of a job left unfinished in our own hemisphere.

Identifying a problem doesn’t solve it. Understanding racism and oppression doesn’t eliminate it. Expressing moral outrage against prejudice doesn’t expunge the guilt of allowing it to exist within our sphere of influence. Feeling better about ourselves doesn’t lighten the load of the hopeless.

I would have preferred to walk out of “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys with both feelings and ideas, since, together, they’re better motivators than ideas alone. Ideas are too easily translated into idle concern. But all political art, even at its best, is incomplete without some repercussions in the real world. I believe that this production falls far short in this respect, scraping up only a limited amount of low-budget white liberal appeal.