Master Harold and the Boys
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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As a theatrical tour de force, Master Harold and the Boys ran for 344 performances, culminating in a Tony® Award for Best Play in 1982. The “Master” in the play is a South African white teen named Hally, essentially a boy, even though he is 17, and the boys are Willie and Sam, two grown black men, played by Patrick Mofokeng, and Ving Rhames, respectively, who must acquiesce to the wishes and fleeting whims of young Hally (Master Harold), played by Freddie Highmore.
Now available October 11 by Image Entertainment is the DVD adaptation of this landmark Athol Fugard play. No matter how good the play and DVD are, Master Harold and the Boys, set in 1950 in a South African café, just made me angry, and I would have remained angry if I allowed myself to also remain in the era in which the play is based. The time is one of an apartheid South Africa, where superiority, classism and servitude is par for the course.
Master Harold and the Boys tells the story of Hally, who is unhappy at home because his father is an embarrassing drunk invalid. The boy’s mother runs the tea house but after school Hally spends his afternoons there playing around with the black servants when his mother isn’t around. The scene is a rainy afternoon, while the mom is at the hospital collecting her husband—much to the displeasure of Hally. It is the knowledge that his father is returning home that has Hally in an uproar, with him lashing out at his only friends—to the point of no return.
Willie and Sam mostly have their run of the café, meaning that they have their chores but in between they practice for the upcoming ball room dance competition. Sam is married, but Willie has been mean to his girlfriend Hilda, even hitting her. Sam tries to teach Willie to respect Hilda because he should and also because she is the best dance partner for him. But he also tries to teach or warn Hally against falling victim to his birthright—that of acting superior to blacks.
This coming-of-age story has Hally torn between despising his father and having great esteem for Willie and Sam, even though society dictates that he shouldn’t. But he doesn’t have many friends at school, and Willie and Sam are like family. But even family members don’t deserve to have their dignity pulled out from under them, as Hally seemed bent upon doing in the end.
Directed by Lonny Price, who played Hally during the 1982 stage run, Master Harold and the Boys is an unforgettable depiction of hope in the face of injustice and ignorance. Full of the best and worst of humanity, it captures all the heartbreak and dignity of one of the most celebrated plays of our time.
I had never seen this stage play, and although it made me angry (a good film elicits emotions), I really enjoyed this DVD. Look for Master Harold and the Boys on DVD and Blu-ray from Image Entertainment October 11. Visit www.image-entertainment.com
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago, who also serves as a news editor with FilmMonthly.com.
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