South Africa has overcome apartheid, but the anti-bigotry play “Master Harold and the Boys” remains as timely as ever.
The racist Afrikaner government banned the 1982 dramatic powerhouse from the start, but its courageous white author Athol Fugard -- now 80 years old -- has lived to see his country become a land of empowerment.
Make no mistake though.
The hate depicted in “Master Harold and the Boys” is very much alive. Indeed, white supremacist groups and the Birthers alone make the play immediately relevant.
The very moving Gloucester Stage Company 30th anniversary revival -- with a towering lead performance by Johnny Lee Davenport -- demonstrates how truly universal Fugard’s messages remain.
Set in a fictional Port Elizabeth, South Africa teashop during a 1950 afternoon rainstorm, “Master Harold and the Boys” involves contrasting lessons between black waiters Sam and Willie and Sam and Harold, whose mother is their employer (Fugard’s first name is actually Harold).
With inclement weather keeping customers away from St. George’s Park Tea Room, Willie asks Sam to give him pointers about ballroom dancing in preparation for an upcoming competition.
Fugard develops this simple opening dance sequence into a compelling metaphor about human connection and life. While bossy Harold is often pedantic and condescending, mentoring Sam is always loving and caring.
As Sam and Harold switch places as teacher and student or mentor and protégé, the audience learns some important revelations about Master Harold and his family.The key unseen characters are Harold’s parents — a domineering mother and a boozing disabled father (Fugard’s own father was disabled).
Tellingly, with his father in the hospital, Harold is much friendlier. When telephone calls from his mother alert him to his father’s return home, Harold becomes “the master,” ordering around Sam and Willie and abandoning the graciousness that Sam has been cultivating in him.
Throughout the play, dance practice and the joy of dancing stand up to such hatred in the most humanizing way possible. As a person and as a spokesman for Fugard as well, Sam speaks of the power of dance to create a “world without collisions,” a world in which people can have true dialogue and understanding.
Will Harold ever fully embrace such a world? Will he rather remain a child- master easily swayed by bigotry and insensitivity?
As in life itself, the play’s sometimes grim reality is tempered by a measure of hope upon which Harold will have to build after the rainstorm if understanding and dialogue are to be attained.
Distinguished Producing Director-in-Residence at Emerson Stage, Benny Sato Ambush, makes the dancing and collisions between Sam, Willie and Harold equally compelling. Fugard’s play may seem wordy early on, but Ambush sharply paces the ups and downs of Sam and Harold’s exchanges. This is especially true of a pivotal discussion about “men of magnitude” that includes Napoleon, Darwin and Gandhi.
The sublime Gloucester Stage cast — all in debut with the company — make this “Master Harold and the Boys” even more touching than the very good Boston tours with the gifted James Earl Jones and the late Zakes Mokae.
Anthony Wills Jr., catches Willie’s charm as well as his temper. He does well articulating Willie’s admiration for Sam and developing his grace as a dancer. Peter Mark Kendall captures Harold’s moments of sensitivity with Sam as well as his peevishness and petty cruelty. He makes Harold properly ambivalent as a character so that theatergoers will sympathize with him one moment and be appalled by him at another. Both Wills and Kendall are talents to watch.
Best of all is Johnny Lee Davenport as Sam. This Boston-based dynamo is an actor of great range. Watch his light-heartedness and style as his Sam gives Willie pointers about a waltz and a foxtrot. Also note his subtlety and singular understatement as Sam tries to guide Harold to insight about manhood and friendship. Sam is unquestionably as much of a man of magnitude as the leaders and thinkers whom Harold considers for a history assignment and so is Davenport as an actor.
Designer Jenna McFarland Lord’s teashop has the right blend of solid wood warmth and small table intimacy. Chris Bocchiaro evokes the rainstorm — itself a clear metaphor for tension and collision — with proper nuance.
“Master Harold and the Boys” envisions a world without accidents and bumping. Ambush and his Astaire-caliber cast make that world an artful dance at Gloucester Stage.
"Master Harold and the Boys," Gloucester Stage Company, through August 12. 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.org.