l to r: Adimorah, Prose and Eaton star in Master Harold

Audience reaction to the play Master Harold and the Boys is more divergent than almost any play I have reviewed. This is a three-person play, ostensibly about apartheid in South Africa. It consists of a white boy Hally (played by the adult Oliver Prose), and two black guys who work in his parents’ teahouse: Sam (Ian Eaton) and Willie (Odera Adimorah).

One woman told me: “I was really disgusted by the first part. The actor playing the young boy was really going over the top in terms of accent. If there had been an intermission I would have left. But the wallop at the end really got me, it was really cathartic. I could forgive my opinion of the beginning because of the ending.”

Hally spends a lot of time yelling at the top of lungs into a phone. One member of the audience said he lost the dialogue here, as the combination of accent and volume overwhelmed what was being said. But more importantly he addressed the essence of the play. “If it was trying to make a point on apartheid I think it missed. It seemed to me more like how the privileged class treats the working class in a more general sense.”

A couple of people who had seen the play before me warned of how shocking certain elements of it are. Considering the horrors that really did happen during apartheid in South Africa I was expecting the worst, but what really happens in the play is very far from it. Perhaps when the play premiered in 1982 and then moved to Broadway for 344 performances that same year audiences were much more innocent, but I can certainly understand an immediate if regrettable reaction if an employee of any colour had dropped his pants in a place of business. Imagine that happening in a white man’s cafe in the American South in the 1920s.

Playwright Athol Fugard does try to inject more than just a moralistic element to the play by employing a metaphor between international relations and dancing. In discussing a dance competition, Sam says “it’s like being in a dream where accidents don’t happen.” There are no collisions between dance couples, he says, so no one gets bruised. “Are we ever going to dance life like champions?” he asks, prompting Hally to say the “United Nations is like dancing school for politicians.” A bit pollyanna perhaps, but a nice sentiment.

Set design by Jason Sherwood was really fine. A teahouse furnished with a Rock-ola jukebox sounds delightful. Perhaps it actually was in the tearoom operated by Fugard’s mother in South Africa, part of the inspiration for his play.

I found the dialogue near the beginning of the play to be filled with a lot of nattering that could have been dispensed with, and another theatre-goer told me she thought it was “long-winded towards the end.” Nonetheless the interaction between the three characters is compelling, and delivered with excellence by the actors.

Master Harold and the Boys is being performed thru Feb. 2, 2020.

Visit the website for tickets: arizonatheatre.org

l to r: Adimorah, Prose and Eaton star in Master Harold