It's a rainy afternoon in 1950 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, at the start of Athol Fugard's "Master Harold"... and the boys, which is currently in production by Mortall Coile Theatre Company at Sonorous Road. But a storm is also brewing inside the St. George Tea Room, the seemingly prosaic setting for a one-step-forward, one-step-back tale of racial reckoning.
Hally (Ben Pluska) is a white, seventeen-year-old high school student. Sam (Gil Faison) is a forty-five-year-old black man who has been employed at the Tea Room, Hally's family's business, for years; he's also been an unacknowledged father figure to the boy.
Early on, we recognize that Hally's not a bad sort. He's bright, almost selectively precocious in English, while struggling—mostly out of a lack of interest—through math and history. As he banters with Sam and Willie (George Hill), another servant at the restaurant, Hally disparages the grueling forms of punishment used primarily against black people under apartheid, including the deceptively named "strokes with a light cane." He's optimistic that change will come. At one point, Hally says, "Every age, Sam, has got its social reformer. My history book is full of them." But when Sam asks, "So where's ours?" Hally's response is telling: "Good question."
At the same time, Fugard gradually reveals this adolescent's stark racial privilege over a wiser elder. Under Jesse Gephart's direction, Pluska, a remarkable tenth-grade actor from Enloe High School, conveys this privilege in subtle vocal vacillations between spontaneity, superiority, and stiffness. When Hally chastises Willie, we note his tone of command, and his patronizing air when discussing Abraham Lincoln with Sam. It's unsettling when, after a debate over historical "men of magnitude," Hally proudly tells Sam, "Tolstoy may have educated his peasants, but I have educated you."
Matters quickly darken from there. Bad news about his estranged father leaves Hally furious, frustrated, and vulnerable. Pluska and Gephart convey these moments with velocity and pathos. When Sam tries to comfort Hally, the boy lashes out at him and Willie with the weapon closest to hand—a vicious string of racial slurs. It is one of the most squirm-inducing scenes in twentieth-century drama. Then, when Hally escalates the conflict beyond words, the room goes absolutely still.
Much of that response has to do with stage veteran Gil Faison's career-defining performance as Sam. By this point in the play, he has convinced us of Sam's deep affection for his fellow worker, Willie; his love of music, jokes, and dance; and his deep concern for Hally. But when Hally crosses Sam's final border, the righteous, pent-up rage born of a lifetime of oppression erupts.
It's a lesson our present-day legislators have yet to learn: Sometimes, the whipped person seizes the whip in mid-stroke. When a long abused community—black people, gay people, transgender people—summarily refuses to be punished further, it rarely results in the form of mercy that this exceptional cast ultimately explores.
This article appeared in print with the headline "For Mercy's Sake"