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Saturday, February 24, 2024

’Master Harold’ examines freedom

Tangling with such themes as race and paternal loyalty, Athol Fugard's 'Master Harold and the Boys' unfolds as a painful and important vision of a boy becoming a man in the mid-20th century South African world, one deeply rooted in prejudice.  




Staged at the intimate Mitchell Theatre, Vilas Communication Hall, this play touches the audience on both political and social levels as well as deeply personal ones. Thoughtfully directed by UW-Madison's own Barbara Clayton and starring UW-Madison alumnus Michael McGuire, accomplished and well-traveled Baron Kelly and Harry Waters Jr., Fugard's critically acclaimed piece comes alive and delivers with inspired acting and a profound and layered message. 




Set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the play opens in The St. Georges Park Tea Room on a rainy and gray day. Sam (Kelly) and Willy (Waters Jr.), the two black employees, are maintaining the restaurant while at the same time discussing the upcoming ballroom dancing competition. Meanwhile Hally (McGuire), the son of the restaurant's owner, enters from the wet and windy outdoors.  




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The audience soon learns that this is his daily post-school homework ritual with Sam and Willy at the restaurant. Throughout the rest of the play, while Hally tries to finish his homework and Sam and Willy practice their dance moves, Hally is not only confronted with his ambiguous relationship with his disabled and alcoholic father, but with the paternal and guiding role Sam, a black man, has taken in his life. 




Despite the genuine bond and love Sam and Hally hold for each other, Hally's relationship with his father and Sam's challenging of Hally's conflicted emotions leads them into a disturbing and abusive conflict, exposing the underlying feelings of entitlement and prejudice. In the end there is no Hally in Sam's life, only a 'Master Harold.' 




Hally, played with a poignant teen-age gangly quality by McGuire, is strongly based on Fugard's teen-age self. He is an interesting character of inner conflict, and at 17, is about to enter manhood full of social, academic and sexual anxiety that simmers under the surface of his character. Much of his anxiety seems to come from the absence of a father figure, and as the play unfolds, the raw emotionality of these feelings builds and captures in its intensity.  




The relationship of Sam and Hally is very central to the play and comes across through the natural rapport between Sam (Kelly) and Hally (McGuire). Kelly also does a very thoughtful job portraying Sam's genuine affection and connection for Hally while communicating the ambivalence he faces when crossing certain social boundaries. At a fundamental level, this whole play becomes a commentary on these invisible lines and asks the question- can a human bond transcend deeply ingrained social taboos.  




An important and symbolic anecdote recalled by Sam and Hally involves a time when they made a kite and spent the day flying it. A black man and a white boy flying a kite is such a paradox in this segregated society. It seems that Fugard uses this kite as a symbol of freedom from the oppression that hangs over South Africa. Yet poignantly all the characters realize that on this windy and rainy day a kite cannot fly. 




The Mitchell Theatre production of 'Master Harold and the Boys' deserves attention not only for the powerful issues it raises, but also for the superb acting and impressive set design. Curtis Phillips does a wonderful job with the scenery and the costumes creating the authentic and detailed St. Georges Park Tea Room. Although McGuire is young and no seasoned thespian, his greenness adds to his performance of the confused and angry Hally, a role once undertaken by Matthew Broderick. Waters Jr., a fairly accomplished actor and director, does a very thoughtful job expressing Willy's obvious disgust with Hally's prejudice.  




During one intense argument between Sam and Hally, Waters projects an ominous growl after Hally spits in the face of Sam. Finally Kelly, an experienced and very accomplished actor, gives it all in his undertaking of the ups and downs of Sam's love and betrayal for Hally. Playing at the Mitchell Theatre between Sep. 13 to 15 and 20 to 22, this adaptation of 'Master Harold and the Boys' is a revealing and emotional piece which is worth the time of anyone with social conscience. 




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