Aches and Pains
Athol Fugard's Iconic Apartheid Play and a New Riff on Postpartum Terror
It feels slightly blasphemous to approach South African playwright Athol Fugard and his iconic study in racism Master Harold... and the Boys with anything other than reverence. The play was written in 1982, in the midst of apartheid, and banned from publication in South Africa. It went on to win a Tony Award and arguably helped end apartheid by bringing the psychological malevolence of institutional racism to large international audiences. (The original Broadway run starred Danny Glover.) Master Harold, which takes place in a tea shop with no customers, takes on thorny questions—such as whether true cross-racial friendship is even possible in a structurally racist society—and makes them digestible. But another thorny question remains: Is it a great and enduring play for the ages, or just a nobly didactic one that was of great social merit in the 1980s and '90s?
This production at West of Lenin, directed by M. Burke Walker, sets it somewhere in between. The title is bitterly ironic: "Master Harold" (James Lindsay) is a white teenager who comes to his mother's tea shop one rainy afternoon to do his homework. The "boys" are the gregarious Willie (Kevin Warren) and the more restrained and dignified Sam (G. Valmont Thomas), two black servants who've helped raise the teenager—and are clearly much wiser than the patronizing Harold gives them credit for.
Sam is the leader of the threesome—he's confident, intelligent, and a counselor to both Willie and Harold—but given that this is 1950s South Africa, everyone has to pretend that Harold ("Master Harold" to Willie, but "Hally" to Sam) is the superior.
Their talk oscillates among three poles: reminiscences of Harold's boyhood (the time when Sam made him a kite), his schoolwork (he's eager to play the teacher to Sam, who seems amenable to play the student), and a big ballroom dancing contest that Willie and Sam are practicing for. But as they weave their two-hour conversation, it becomes clear that the shuttle of apartheid and racism is guiding it. Harold tut-tuts at the grown men and barks orders to them whenever he's frustrated, playing little lord of the manor and declaring he's allowed them to be too familiar for servants. Harold, with his smooth-cheeked white arrogance, is trying on the mantle of manhood but isn't perceptive enough to realize when he's playing the bully or thoughtlessly parroting the white supremacism that dominates his culture.
The "boys" take this with good-natured restraint, but the strains on their relationship begin to show and finally threaten to tear their small family apart. Lindsay plays Harold as the boy on the cusp of bitterness—his relationships with the "boys" are far better than the ones with his parents—and his sudden flashes of anger and frustration can be startling. But Warren and Thomas carry the show, as the mostly unspoken subtext of what they know—as opposed to what they can openly say—bounces like a little electrical arc between their faces.
Master Harold is an exercise in theatrical realism—its set is a stage-sized tea shop (and designer Catherine Cornell has put together a well-appointed facsimile of one with a vintage jukebox), and the play takes place in real time. But that literalism can sometimes feel like a drag, especially in the moments where actors are slow on their cues or don't quite give their beats the energy and fullness they deserve.
Smudge, playing at Washington Ensemble Theater, is another three-person drama with a monster in the room—in this case, a newborn baby that is armless, legless, one-eyed, and possibly evil. The new play by Rachel Axler (of The Daily Show and Parks and Recreation) is a 21st-century riff on the new-mother anxieties that fueled Rosemary's Baby back in the late 1960s: What if you became pregnant and discovered you regarded your baby with horror?
Carol Thompson (who, with her red cheeks and flashes of strong emotion, is almost a counterpart to James Lindsay's Master Harold) plays Colby, a wry but confused woman with a monster on her hands. Whether it's monstrous postpartum depression or a monstrous infant is hard to say. But when her husband, Nick (played with naive, gee-whiz energy by Ash Hyman), goes off to work, the baby, which is hooked up to all kinds of tubes and an annoyingly loud heart monitor, seems to manipulate the lights, glow strangely, and generally torment its mother.
The two parents are at loggerheads with their little bundle of birth defects—Nick loves it like a baby, while Colby wishes "the smudge" would just go away. Its resolution is sudden and not very resolved—one gets the feeling that Axler got stuck in the characters' opposition so just tied a bow on it. Smudge feels most alive when the comic relief, Nick's boisterously dumb and quasi-bully of an older brother Pete (Noah Benezra), sweeps onto the stage. Nick and Pete work together for the US Census—Axler wrings a few decent jokes from that situation—and Benezra plays his bro-character with the vim of Jack Black in High Fidelity. But ultimately, Smudge, much like Master Harold, wants to scorch but leaves only a dull ache. When it ends, we are not left wishing for more.