Five Stars for "Master Harold"...and the boys at Off Broadway West

LaMont Ridgell as Sam & Adam Simpson as Hallie in "Master Harold"...and the boys

Off Broadway West Theatre Company has just opened their 5th season with a superb production of "Master Harold"...and the boys.  It has been 8 years since this classic has been performed in San Francisco.  Racial prejudice and difficult family relations remain a present concern.  This play addresses both.  

Athol Fugard's "Master Harold"...and the boys is based on the playwright's early life in South Africa.  But the play itself is not a simple retelling of an incident from his past.  Rather, Fugard presents a personal experience that extends to universal humanity.  If the play were simply a controversial attack against the policy of apartheid, it would already be outdated now that sweeping change has transformed South Africa.  Instead, Fugard wrote a play about human relationships that are put to the test by societal and personal forces. 

"Master Harold"...and the boys is a one act that takes place inside St. George's Park Tea Room on a wet and windy Port Elizabeth (South Africa) afternoon in 1950.  No customers populate the restaurant due to the bad weather.  Two black waiters, Willie (Anthony Rollins-Mullens) and Sam (LaMont Ridgell) are onstage as the play begins.  Willie is scrubbing the floor on his hands and knees and Sam is reading comic books at a table which has been set for a meal.  Willie wants to improve his dancing skills but appears to have been deserted by his partner after he won the dance competition.  Sam offers Willie advice about improving both his dancing technique and his domestic relations.  The son of the tea room's owner, Hallie (Adam Simpson) enters direct from school.  He eats a bowl of soup and talks to the two men with whom he appears to have a close relationship.  Hallie, while displaying obvious affection for the men--especially Sam--takes a pedantic tone, assuming the role of teacher, yet the nature of their interaction clearly shows Sam as the teacher and Hallie as the eager pupil.  During the course of the play, the two waiters and Hallie exchange kidding remarks not meant to offend anyone.  But, after Hallie receives some bad news about his father, he takes out his anger on the workers.  Efforts to smooth out the situation erupt into an all-out racial conflict.  Fugard himself served as a model for Hallie.   

This Off Broadway West production deserves high praise for both its fine acting and brilliant direction by Richard Harder.  The audience gave the play a well-deserved standing ovation. Bert van Aalsburg's set of St. George's Park Tea Room is also truly amazing.  

The trio of actors are wonderful!  Each is perfect for his part.  LaMont Ridgell plays a dignified, wise and understanding Sam.  Anthony Rollins-Mullens plays a boyish and naive Willie and Adam Simpson's Master Harold is intellectually curious but not challenged enough by his classes. His lack of enthusiasm for his monotonous school routine contrasts with the enthusiasm he takes in teaching and debating with Sam.  When faced with the return of his tyrannical father, Harold transfers his anger and pain to what he considers his servants, transforming their relationship for the first time from childhood friends and companions into subservient help.  Director Richard Harder makes each moment specific and come alive before our very eyes.  "Master Harold"...and the boys is a tribute to him and his talented cast.  Run, don't walk to see this fine production!

"Master Harold"...and the boys plays at Off Broadway West Theatre Company through November 19, 2011.  Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Phoenix Theatre, Suite 601, 414 Mason Street (between Geary and Post), San Francisco.  For tickets, go to: or call 800-838-3006. For more information, call 530-864-4438 or 415-407-3214.

Flora Lynn Isaacson