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Theatre Review: Master Harold... And The Boys

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Master Harold" takes place in 1950, inside a well-appointed South African tea room in a public park. It's raining hard outside, so the two black waiters - dressed in tuxedos - have no customers to serve. Instead, they enjoy a rambling conversation with the son of the tea room's owner - a preppy high school boy named Harold -- who wanders in to start his homework. It quickly becomes clear that these three have enjoyed an unlikely buddy relationship for years, despite the obvious divisions of age and race. The chirpy Harold and the savvy, forty-something Sam recall when Harold flew a homemade kite as a lad in knee pants.

Harold: "And you came and joined me, and you were laughing."

Sam: "And so were you, and shouting, 'It works, Sam. We've done it!"

Harold: "And we had. I was so proud of us. It was the most splendid thing I had ever seen."

The two are so close they can even discuss embarrassing things. Like when Sam describes what it's like to be caned - a humiliating punishment involving whacking a man's bare backside with rattan.

Sam: They make you lie down on a bench. One policeman pulls down your trousers, and holds your ankles. While the other pulls the shirt over your head and holds your arms.

Harold: Thank you, that's enough.

Sam: And the one who gives you the strokes talks to you gently - OW - and for a long time - OW - between each one. OW!!!

Harold: What did I say, Jesus! It's a bloody awful world when you think of it. People can be bastards.

Sam: That's the way it is, Harry.

This frank conversation - in the safety of the deserted café - eventually wanders onto dangerous topics. And then a sudden phone call triggers a crisis, straining friendship and mutual respect to the limit.

This well-directed production connects across a range of emotions, from gentle laughter to angry fury, bringing the personal injustice of apartheid into focus. All three actors deserve praise, but I'll single out the remarkable performance by Will Block, a local teen from STC's Young Professionals Conservatory. This is the most satisfying, fully-realized production I've seen at the Sacramento Theatre Company in ages - a high water mark that hopefully points toward more good things to come.

"Master Harold  . . . and the Boys" by Athol Fugard continues at the Sacramento Theatre Company through May 5th.

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