Portrayal of South African racism echoes in GSO

by Amy Kingsley

For Triad Stage’s production of Master Harold and the Boys, set designer Richard Crowell painstakingly recreated a 1950’s tearoom in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, complete with vintage tile, mahogany furniture and chiming register. The three actors who inhabit this world for the play’s two-hour duration do so with mid-century style and appropriately adapted accents.

But theatergoers aiming to be transported to another land ‘— away from the sticky problems of race and violence that continue to plague our little burg ‘— will find no sunny redemption in this tale. Instead, playwright Athol Fugard heaves viewers in front of a mirror in this masterpiece chronicle of apartheid-era South Africa. In its reflection we watch characters struggling, and sometimes failing, to forge connections over yawning societal rifts. Although we never leave the tearoom, Fugard aptly portrays the catastrophic results of an ideological earthquake that reduces to rubble so many personal relationships beyond its institutional epicenter.

When Hally, the white character, turns cruelly on his black friend Sam, the fallout is not unlike that which the Greensboro community has been dealing with since Klansmen killed five Communist Workers Party protesters in November 1979. The characters obliquely refer to reconciliation and forgiveness as ways out of the trap built by generations of human behavior. It’s a noble idea, but Hally lacks the patience and dexterity needed to pick the lock with such tools. Instead he opts for the hatchet of South African pass laws.

The timing of this production is fortuitous, with the release of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s full report scheduled less than two weeks after closing weekend. This month, Greensboro residents have two opportunities to examine South African struggles with apartheid to plumb the depths of our own racial schism.

Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, who was not yet a city council member when the body voted not to endorse the truth and reconciliation process, attended the opening night performance. Her fellow council members (and the mayor) would do well to follow her example.

Director Benny Sato Ambush hails from Massachusetts but said he knows a thing or two about Greensboro’s history. That said, he insisted that he isn’t trying to preach to the community, just aiming to present a work about what it means to be human and how we connect.

‘“To claim one’s higher nature takes effort and will,’” Ambush said. ‘“We have got to desire to make a change, then do it.’”

Race plays a central role in the character dynamics between Hally, Sam and the other black character, Willie. But it isn’t the only issue tackled in the single-scene story that plays out over an afternoon. Hally and Willie are victims of cruelty as well as its perpetrators ‘— with Hally replaying an abusive relationship with his father and Willie unleashing his anger on an unseen dance partner.

All this ugliness unfolds against the backdrop of the two servants practicing for a ballroom dancing competition. It is an endeavor Hally is quick to dismiss until Sam pitches the exercise as a metaphor for utopia.

In ballroom dancing, he says, you succeed by connecting with another person and avoiding collisions with your fellow dancers. Off the dance floor, out in the real world, we’re all amateurs stumbling into one another and missing the steps.

Sam is a champion dancer, a skill that he is literally teaching to Willie. It may be that a bit of quickstep is necessary for his lesson to take, but Hally entirely shuns this practice.

His is not an example our city should strive to emulate; we need to step onto that dance floor, Ambush says. By the end of the play, Hally and Sam have parted ways in a huff, and it is Sam who makes the effort at rapprochement. At that moment Sam, who has been a de facto father figure to Hally, shows him not just how to be a man, but how to be human.

‘“As a society, we need to do what Sam did,’” Ambush said. ‘“He could have stayed in that kitchen stewing in his anger, but what good does that do?’”

The moral is that it does no good, of course. But students of Greensboro history know that already. We haven’t fully addressed a history of oppression that includes slavery, segregation and Nov. 3, 1979. So now we’re dealing with issues of racial profiling in the police department, and a growing cynicism about our progress in the realm of race relations.

Fugard, a white South African, has said Master Harold and the Boys is the most autobiographical of his works. Perhaps that is why it works so well on multiple levels: personal, familial and social. But it is also why, in the end, this is a hopeful tale. Hally may have turned his back on Sam, but at some point after he walked out the door he returned to make amends.

Playwright Athol Fugard, who was called Hally as a boy, wrote a sheaf of plays he illegally produced in black townships. In the churches, barns and living rooms where he produced his works, Fugard didn’t have the luxury of costumes or sets. But that is the beauty and tragedy of this tale.

Forgive me Mr. Crowell, but your beautiful set doesn’t matter. This story could have happened anywhere.

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