"MASTER HAROLD"...AND THE BOYS, Journeymen, at the Chicago Cultural Center. The end of apartheid hasn't diminished this play. Though Athol Fugard expertly shows how the personal is political, his 90-minute wonder also works as domestic tragedy. Despite some delightful dialogue about ballroom dancing ("a world without collisions") and famous social reformers, the plot is brutally decisive: on a rainy day in 1950, a South African boy named Hally becomes Master Harold and reduces his childhood friends Sam and Willie to the status of family servants--black adults dependent on a lonely, hate-filled white preppie. Fugard presents two equally wrenching losses: loathing his father, this broken boy turns on the man who's been his true father. And the "boys" discover that the kid they thought they loved is a reflexive racist.
Fugard understands the weaknesses that, fatally and foolishly, we take for strengths: compassion shapes his semiautobiographical story. Frank Pullen's masterful staging establishes, then explodes the humanity that links Jean Paul Menou's needy Hally to dignified, devoted Sam (James Vincent Meredith) and trusting Willie (Anthony Wills Jr.). When those bonds burst, the loss registers equally as a private tragedy and a national disgrace. Meredith plays Sam's instant decline from surrogate father to "nigger" as the stuff revolutions are made of. Seeing this play, it seems incredible that South Africa escaped a bloodbath. Perhaps it was thanks to souls like Sam.