After its US debut at Yale Repertory Theatre in March 1982, and before it opened on Broadway in early May of that year, Athol Fugard’s MASTER HAROLD…and the boys played a one-week engagement at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia. During that brief run, one critic wrote of the play, in part:
Fugard, who also directed the Yale Repertory Theater production, has fashioned a play of compactness and clarity. Running without intermission for a rapid one-and-three-quarter hours, the play manages to develop and destroy this idyllic refuge for Hally while still taking time to comment on the human condition. To Fugard, life is a ballroom dance, but the humans who are on the floor are often tragically unaware of the steps.
The cast is exemplary. Danny Glover, with a minimum of dialogue, creates in Willie an admirable man whose emotions are obviously trapped by the racial system that restricts him. As Hally, Lonny Price captures the essence of a youth caught between two fathers and the pains of growing up. Price, who has replaced the explosive Željko Ivanek from the original Yale production, brings a gentle and more melancholy tone to the character of this young and misguided protagonist.
Dominating the show is Zakes Mokae as Sam. Mokae provides an ideal father figure for Hally, a man who painfully endures the insults of his “son” in an attempt to salvage the boy’s self-respect.
I recall this review distinctly because I wrote it. I also remember fighting angrily to insure that it appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian, my college newspaper, because having seen the original run at Yale, I believed Master Harold to be a major work of theatre that students should know about. However, because my actual “beat” was writing theatre and film reviews of activities off-campus for the weekly entertainment magazine, 34th Street, shows at the on-campus Annenberg Center were the purview of others – though no one had asked to or been assigned to cover Master Harold. In some ways, it was a conflict of interest for me to write about Annenberg shows, because my work-study job was in the box office there, and in addition I had taken over running the Center’s post-show discussion series.
My fight to write about Master Harold was less because I was so eager to opine on it, but because I thought better me than no one. That’s not to say the play was struggling up from obscurity. On the same page where my review appeared there was an ad for the production, noting positive reviews by, among others, Frank Rich and Mel Gussow of The New York Times, Jack Kroll of Newsweek and Douglas Watt of the New York Daily News. But I doubt many Penn students at the time, even the theatre crowd, had read those.
I met Fugard that week in 1982 when he was on campus, albeit briefly, when I led a post-matinee discussion with him (two years earlier, also at Yale Rep, in a fleeting opportunity for me, he had signed my copy of A Lesson From Aloes). The event was to a degree derailed, first by the retirees in attendance, who used the opportunity to chastise the many high schoolers present for their inappropriate behavior during a pivotal moment in the play. Then more responsible students then took offense and spoke out to distance themselves from their less mature peers. Let’s just say I had no quality time with Athol on stage or off, as he disappeared immediately after the talk, which had squandered his presence.
It would be 28 years before I had the opportunity to speak with Fugard again, occasioned by my podcast “Downstage Center.” I had long wanted to talk with him, to revisit the Master Harold that I had seen both in New Haven and Philadelphia, and later on its national tour. Despite the fact that Fugard continued his relationship with Yale Rep into the latter part of the 80s, even as I began to work at Harford Stage, our paths never crossed, until October of 2010 for the podcast session.
Based upon what I had seen in 1982, I had been harboring a long unanswered question. However, what I wanted to discuss was so specific, that I didn’t bring it up during the 65 minute interview (which you can listen to here), because so few listeners might be interested. But once I turned off the recorder, I finally had my chance. I asked Fugard if he minded answering a very particular question almost three decades on, and he generously encouraged me.
As it was widely acknowledged, at the time and ever since, Ivanek could not stay with Master Harold because he was already committed to appear in a movie, The Sender, his first significant film role. Lonny Price, as he told me himself both back in 1982 at the Annenberg Center and again when we met as adults years later, had gone into the show with only 10 days preparation.
But as I intimated in my review, there was a shift in the play with the change from Ivanek to Price. Specifically (and if you don’t know the play, you may want to stop reading now), at its climax, Hally (as Harold is called throughout the play), spits on Sam, his surrogate father, and the two must confront the anger and shame that brought them to that moment and its aftermath. The play ends relatively quickly thereafter, with Hally making an emotional departure from the tea room where the play is set.
“When Željko played the role,” I related to Fugard in 2010, “it felt to me like there had been an irrevocable break. That Hally had become his father, embittered and racist, and that his friendship with Sam would never be repaired. With Lonny in the role, the moment seemed to be one that was more ambiguous, more confused, and even though he stormed off, you had a sense that they might work things out. Was that,” I then asked, “simply the result of the differing nature of the two actors, or was it a change in the intent of the moment and the play?”
“Well, the second way is truer to what really happened,” Fugard explained. As he had said previously in interviews over the years, he was Hally and there was a Sam. However the actual incident had taken place when Fugard was younger, a pre-teen, as opposed to the older teen as portrayed in the play. “We did become friends again,” he said.
“But,” he mused, “what you say is very interesting. Because what we ended up showing may have been the truth, but what you saw originally may have actually been the more dramatically interesting choice. I didn’t necessarily see it, because I knew what happened and that’s what I wanted to show. But perhaps I missed an opportunity.” And with that, since I had already kept Fugard past my allotted time, he was whisked off to some event where he was slated to put in an appearance.
I tell this story in part because while my question was birthed in 1982, it was with perseverance and luck that I was able to get an answer in 2010 – and because that’s an awfully long time to walk around with what was, in essence, a burning dramaturgical inquiry. But I also tell it because, for the first time in some 30 years, I’ll be seeing MASTER HAROLD…and the boys later this week at Signature, in a production once again directed by Fugard. Having seen it so often, and done so well, in the first half of the 1980s (including with James Earl Jones as Sam in the national tour), I have shied away from subsequent productions – and I wasn’t yet living in NYC when Lonny Price directed a revival for Roundabout in 2003. I’ve also never seen the TV version with Matthew Broderick, John Kani and Mokae from 1985 or the 2011 film (directed by Price) with Ving Rhames and Freddie Highmore.
It is now six years since I interviewed Athol, 34 years since I first saw Master Harold, and a few days before I see the play again. Perhaps Athol will be lurking at the back of the house, since I’m seeing a late preview; even if he is, I doubt he’ll remember me after our three brief meetings spread over so many years. I find myself wondering about what Hally I’ll see: the one who eventually reconciles with his friends or the one hardened into racism fueled by apartheid, or someone in between. But no matter what, I’m ready to spend an afternoon in the tea room with Willie, Hally and Sam, all of whom were theatrical mentors to me, teaching me how much one actor, and a shift in emphasis, can so change a play.