Magic Time!: ‘ “Master Harold”…and the Boys’ at Round House Theatre

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. 

Craig Wallace as Sam and Nick Fruit as Hally in Round House Theatre’s production of “Master Harold” … and the Boys. Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

 

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.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.