Kansas City Actors Theatre tackles Athol Fugard’s “‘Master Harold’. . . and the Boys,” a psychological pressure-cooker set in a provincial South African tea shop on a rainy afternoon, with commendable results.
Fugard has called this his most autobiographical play, which is another way of saying everything dramatized onstage — love, respect, fear, betrayal, racial enmity — was experienced by Fugard as both victim and perpetrator.
First performed in 1982 and set in 1950, the oppressive reality of apartheid looms over the action. Fugard depicts the complicated relationship between Hally, a 17-year-old white high-school student, and two middle-aged black men, Sam and Willie, who work in the tea shop owned by Hally’s mother. The characters visually project a sense of formal social ranking: Hally, in a school boy uniform with a striped tie and pocket crest on his blazer, is in marked contrast to Sam and Willie, clad in black trousers and white waiters’ jackets.
Hally (short for Harold) is clearly the Fugard stand-in and Sam and Willie are based on men he knew. The play depicts the uncertain ground everyone had to tread under apartheid. Hally, alienated from his own father — a disabled drunk — looks to the two older men, especially Sam, as surrogate parental figures.
Theirs is relationship built on honest affection, so much so that Sam and Willie repeatedly give Hally a pass for his youthful white arrogance, even as they offer him advice on his attitudes about his father.
As the play opens Willie, using a mop as his dance partner, is practicing his quickstep for an upcoming ballroom dance competition attended only by black South Africans. Ballroom dance plays a symbolic role, representing an idealized but unobtainable social realm in which collisions are avoided because everyone knows the steps. Sam helps Willie by offering sometimes barbed tips. The tone is lighthearted, but the mood begins to change when Hally arrives in what appears to be an agitated state.
As the narrative and backstories unfold, we see the depth of Hally’s enmity for his father, which triggers a deep shame that he has revealed the truth to two mature black men. In a way, Hally, Sam and Willie are like siblings in a dysfunctional family in which expressions of love come cloaked with hostility and resentment.
The KCAT production, directed by Gary Heisserer, is, at its best, riveting theater. That comes in the extended one-act’s final 30 minutes when the characters’ raw emotions come to the surface with disastrous results. Walter Coppage, a fine character actor and a KCAT founder, is at the peak of his powers as Sam. His performance initially is executed with a light touch, full of good humor and seemingly endless patience as Hally blithely and innocently expresses attitudes reflecting his presumed white superiority. Later he becomes angry, hurt and vindictive, and Coppage handles the transition with exceptional grace and agility.
At the final preview, Arthur Clifford offered a deeply felt performance as Hally. However, the sustained high-strung intensity of Clifford’s take on Hally seemed out of sync with his fellow actors in the early going and left him no place to go as the play progressed.
Khalif J. Gillett makes a strong impression as Willie, despite being too young for the role. He demonstrates an emotional flexibility that allows him to credibly express humor, frustration and anger.
Audiences viewing this play in the here and now might find comfort in the distance allowed by a drama set in another country and in another time. But the institutional racism and racial violence practiced in South Africa were no worse than the American version. When we take into account the hysterical reactions in some segments of the population to a black man being elected to the White House, and the ubiquitous images of neo-fascists carrying confederate flags, then we might want to take a closer look at Fugard’s play.
“‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys” runs through Sept. 29 at City Stage in Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or visit www.kcactors.org.