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Master Harold … and the boys

J.G. Gonsalves, Galen Howard and James Wheatley as residents of 1950s South Africa in <i>Master Harold … and the boys</i>.<i></i>

J.G. Gonsalves, Galen Howard and James Wheatley as residents of 1950s South Africa in Master Harold … and the boys.

Rated 4.0

Celebration Arts’ annual staging of a drama by South African playwright Athol Fugard is (hands down!) the most notable special theater series in Sacramento, dating back into the 1990s.

This production of Master Harold … and the boys is a revival, hearkening back to Celebration Arts’ mounting of the play in 2000. That show was directed by Bob Devin Jones and the late Myrtle Stephens, and it featured James Wheatley and J.G. Gonsalves as two middle-aged black men working in a South African tearoom, plus Matthew Huffman as the young white master, the son of the tea shop’s owner, who comes in to get out of the rain.

Master Harold’s known the two older black men for years, and their conversation begins with familiarity and affection. But things turn icy cold when Harold coldly asserts his superior status, based on his race and his status as the owner’s son. You can feel the yawning chasm of South Africa’s old system of apartheid opening at your feet. (The play rings true because it’s based on a boyhood episode that Fugard regrets; he tried to atone by writing this play in 1982.)

Gonsalves was nominated for an Elly Award for the 2000 production. And Huffman gave the performance of his young life, smiling-sweet and surly-sour by turns. (He left for Los Angeles not long afterward.) Wheatley gave what’s probably his signature performance as Sam, who’s known the young master since he was a lad and can’t swallow his pride and defer when Harold treats him badly.

This revival, directed by Wheatley, is almost (but not quite) as amazing as the 2000 production. Wheatley’s still outstanding. So is Gonsalves, pressing hand to forehead as he watches his work partner and the young master nearly come to blows.

Galen Howard, who’s studied under Ed Claudio, plays Master Harold this time and quite properly does the role his own way. Howard is skinnier, and he turns skeptical and twitchy at an earlier stage—a worthy performance, if not quite the equal of the commanding effort by Huffman five years ago.

Master Harold is very much a show worth seeing, especially if you missed the previous incarnation. It’s a high-quality production, one of the best dramas in Sacramento this year. It’s a solid bet if you’re seeking an evening of meaty, serious theater during June.