One of the most quietly profound moments in Athol Fugard’s anti-apartheid play “Master Harold”…and the Boys—just opened in a powerfully moving production at Round House Theatre—happens in a simple conversation about a park bench. The exchange is between a white 17-year-old named Hally (Nick Fruit) and an older black man named Sam (the magnificent Craig Wallace), who since Hally was a little boy has been his best friend. Hally recalls the time Sam made a kite for him—”the most splendid thing I had ever seen,” Hally says. One day Sam took him to a park and taught him to fly it. But once the kite was aloft, Sam tied the string to a park bench and walked away, leaving Hally alone.
HALLY: I wanted you to stay, you know. I was a little scared of having to look after it by myself.
Later we find out why Sam left.
SAM: I couldn’t sit down there and stay with you. It was a ‘Whites Only’ bench. You were too young, too excited to notice then. But not anymore….
You know what that bench means now, and you can leave it any time you choose. All you’ve got to do is stand up and walk away from it.
It struck me as I heard those words that that whites-only park bench, which functions in Fugard’s play as a marker of white privilege in 1950 South Africa, takes on far-reaching resonance today in the context of DC theater, where maintenance of a white comfort zone overdetermines what gets programmed.
What would it mean, knowing what we know now about what white privilege in theater looks like, if we just stood up and walked away from it?
For one thing it would mean, I suspect, more productions with the conscience and clarity of this essential-to-see play now superbly mounted at Round House. During it, Hally’s subtly racist microaggressions against Sam build to a corrosive climax that will leave Hally ashamed for the rest of his life. It is a play with limited seating in the comfort zone.
Running time: One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.
“Master Harold”… and the Boys plays through May 6, 2018, at the Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.
For a full picture of the play and its production qualities, see my colleague Amy Kotkin’s fine review, ‘Master Harold…and the Boys’ at Round House Theatre.