In light of the tragic recent events in Sanford, it seems like the appropriate time for a play about racism — especially the insidious kind that manifests itself when "provoked." Playwright Athol Fugard, a white South African who grew up during his country's apartheid era, knew and even participated in just this kind of racism, and he based his 1982 play, Master Harold... and the Boys, partly on his own experiences.
Now at Dramaworks, this message-driven one-act play is set in a tearoom run by white landowners, where two affable black servants, Sam and Willie (W. Paul Bodie and Summer Hill Séven), practice steps for an upcoming ballroom-dancing engagement. Their downtime is interrupted by 17-year-old Hally (Jared McGuire), the owners' son, who returns home from school in a chipper mood that will soon sour. He has formed a bond with the older men, particularly Sam, who has been a friend to Hally his entire life. But it's a friendship whose foundation is based on the inequity of power: The child of an overtly racist alcoholic, Hally has been subtly indoctrinated to treat blacks as exotic curios at best and as inferior animals at worst, and as Hally is pushed to the breaking point over personal matters, he shows his true colors in a regrettable climax.
McGuire, in his South Florida acting debut, is a kinetic presence from his first entrance; his flawless execution of a conflicted character is a joy to watch. Even the way he carries himself — exuding casual authority — signifies a master-servant relationship long before Fugard's dialogue gives the game away. Séven is fine as the slow-witted Willie, a shoegazing role that operates mostly on the play's periphery. And Bodie, an underused local actor, brings a studied grace and a careful, restrained consideration to the role of Sam. Special praise must be reserved for Dramaworks' indefatigable design team, going the extra mile with a layered set that presents, with uncanny realism, rain pattering down on the panes and foliage placed outside the glass doors of the tearoom.
Still, despite all of this and despite the timeliness of the subject matter, there's something inherently unsatisfying about Master Harold. Fugard is a didactic writer, interested in civics lessons as much as great drama, and the elliptical nature of the play allows for few thrilling moments. Portions of it sag like an overused mattress, a chore for even great directors like Bill Hayes to overcome. Dramaworks' Master Harold can feel a bit like eating your veggies, but my — what gloriously arranged veggies they are.