As you sit waiting for the latest Planet Ant production — “Master Harold” … and the Boys — to get underway, you fight the urge to saunter onto set designer Eric Maher’s wondrous creation, drop a coin in the vintage jukebox and signal a waiter for a martini as you watch the peach-tinged light play on the potted palms. We are in South Africa, in the dining lounge of a small resort. The year is 1950, nearly three years into official apartheid.
And apartheid is very much the uninvited guest to this lovely little sanctuary. We join Willie (Douglas K. McCray) and Sam (James Bowen), the “boys,” as they putter about the room, half tending to the cleaning while they discuss Willie’s romantic travails. He’s taken to beating his moll, who also happens to be his dance partner for an important upcoming competition. Sam advises him to relax and romance the poor woman.
Alas, their cheerful banter is interrupted when the son of their employer arrives home from school, his mood only slightly less foul than the weather outside. Hally is a petulant and effete little shit. We soon learn why. His father is a cripple and a drunk, and a constant source of shame for the boy. The old man is recuperating in the hospital but is due to come home that day, much to the chagrin of Hally. Eli Magid, sporting a very spotty accent, plays the kid as a cross between Quentin Crisp and Crispin Glover. Intense whining is still whining, even with a few florid swoons thrown in.
While Willie steps into the background, Hally and Sam enter into a different and treacherous repartee. Hally treats the black man as a noble savage, playing Henry Higgins to Sam’s Eliza Doolittle. The two tease each other about their picks for the greatest social reformers of all time. Sam understandably chooses Abe Lincoln. Hally, puffed-up and pretentious, chooses Tolstoy. Then Sam, knowing Hally is feeling down, recalls the time that he built the boy a kite and they took it flying. Whatever this does to lift the boy’s spirits, also reminds him that Sam is everything his white father and white world is not.
James Bowen is stunning in the role of Sam, a bright, caring man caught between the master-servant relationship that the society imposes on him and the boy, and the father-and-son relationship that circumstances have allowed. When Hally, in desperate pique, cruelly violates the latter, Sam embraces the former. Hally becomes “Master Harold.”
Playwright Athol Fugard wrote this play in 1982 as an atonement for an incident that took place in his youth. It’s a story that echoes loud and ugly in a country like the United States. Watching the play, we could well be in some hardware store in the Deep South of Jim Crow. One is moved by the all-too-familiar sensational moments of the play and those moments’ sentimental underpinnings. The play is a prayer, naive and idealistic, as it must be.
But are prayers good enough? The anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s in America was a telling bit of a trip down memory lane with fingers wagging — it gave protesters the opportunity to revisit, with nostalgia and self-righteousness, old battles and old dreams on someone else’s turf. America is a racially neurotic country for good reason. Racism endures in person, in institutions. Cedric the Entertainer has the luxury to mock Rosa Parks precisely because Rosa Parks had the courage to keep her tired ass in a white man’s bus seat. Yet black and white America are now more separate than ever, each living in their own ghettos, gilded or otherwise.
“Master Harold” … and the Boys offers a vision of what could be. Sadly, though, those moments seem fleeting and increasingly far between.
“Master Harold” … and the Boys is at the Planet Ant Theatre (2357 Caniff, Hamtramck) through Dec. 22 — Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 313-365-4948, ext. 1 for reservations. For more information go to www.planetanttheatre.com.Timothy Dugdale writes about books and theater for the Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com