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Boy Master 

For once, everything goes right

Wednesday, May 30 2001
Athol Fugard's most autobiographical play springs from a quarrel he had as a teenager with a black waiter who worked in his family's South African tea shop. "Can't remember now what precipitated it," he wrote in his journal, but it ended with Fugard riding past Sam Semele on a bicycle, calling his name, and spitting in the older man's face. "Master Harold" ... and the boys uses this shameful memory to examine how normal human friendships vacillate between good and evil -- especially, but not exclusively, in South Africa circa 1950 -- and Laird Williamson's revival of it this month at ACT is a searing, unmitigated success.

It starts cheerfully enough. Sam and Willie, two waiters, pull down chairs and get things ready in the high, drab, white-and-green-linoleum tearoom on St. George's Park in Port Elizabeth. Tall, serried windows with ungraceful fanlights form the clunky-looking walls. Rain streams down the glass. Willie and Sam joke about women and ballroom dancing until Hally, or Master Harold, arrives. He's the 17-year-old son of the tearoom owners. From subsequent conversation we learn that Sam and Willie have lived in Hally's home for years; Hally tutors them in bookish things, but Sam has grown to be Hally's surrogate dad, a servant who gives the boy object lessons in manhood.

No one comes in for tea on this rainy afternoon, so they pass the time discussing great historical men -- Tolstoy, Napoleon, Gandhi -- and you have the impression of Hally as a strong-minded kid who wants to improve his country. Even a vocabulary lesson has idealistic overtones: "An intrepid social reformer will not be daunted by the magnitude of the problem before him," he says, just to use the word "magnitude" in a sentence. "OO-oo," says Sam. "There's a few jawbreakers in dat one!"

Steven Anthony Jones plays Sam in a seamless South African accent, never lapsing from character; he pitches his powerful voice with absolute control. There's no hint of strain here: Instead of reaching to look and sound like another man, Jones simply conjures a separate personality, spacious and whole as a big new house, which he proceeds to walk around in for two harrowing hours. In more than one speech Jones achieves a fervid and melancholy beauty.

Jonathan Sanders, the young actor playing Hally, also does excellent work. His accent is less certain (sometimes he sounds like a British schoolboy), and at first he's overenthusiastic, but he nails all the necessary speeches, and his descent into blinkered grief and selfishness over his alcoholic father is strong. His phone conversation with his father sounds nervous, high-voiced, and fake, which is exactly how it should sound, and his transformation into a little white Hitler (or Botha) makes a terrible kind of sense. "From now on," he barks at Willie and Sam as they dance to imaginary music, "there will be no more of your ballroom-dancing nonsense in here! This is a business establishment!"

Gregory Wallace plays the lean, sullen, harsh-voiced Willie, who's obsessed with ballroom dancing. He's less gregarious than Sam and a conspicuous second fiddle, but Wallace fills the role capably. (The Chronicle's Steven Winn said he was miscast, but I disagree.) Willie's obsession with dancing becomes a metaphor, focused on the tearoom's garishly colorful jukebox. Willie wants to win an award in a dance contest; Hally thinks the ambition is frivolous. Sam takes Willie's side: He insists dancing is "art." Hally scoffs. Then Sam compares dancing in the finals to "being in a dream about a world in which accidents don't happen" -- where people don't collide, because they're all too good at dancing. Hally finds this beautiful. "That's what I been trying to tell you, Hally!" Sam shouts, but too much has happened by the time he wins this minor point, and the notion of a perfect world, as the play goes on, seems more and more of a dream.

Everything goes right in "Master Harold": The script itself delivers a terrible wound, and nothing in Williamson's production cushions it. Ralph Funicello's set has an eloquent, stately drabness that suggests a colonial town in the early '50s. Fugard wrote the play in 1982, more than 30 years after its seed events; the 19 intervening years have not diminished its power. Apartheid as a social policy is as dead as that tearoom, but then "Master Harold" is about something else.


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