PORTLAND – The Portland Stage Company’s latest production deals with the serious subject of a type of racism that was a part of everyday life in South Africa in the era of apartheid.

Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold and the Boys” takes place in 1950 and hit home hard in 1982 when it had its world premiere in the United States. On some levels, it now could be thought of as a period piece, with apartheid gone and so many other advances toward racial equality having been made around the world.

But the play still resonates, not only for its glimpse at the way things were not so long ago but also for its message about how ingrained attitudes sometimes linger in a more or less dormant state until suddenly reawakened by events.

The three-character play takes place one rainy afternoon in a rather dingy teahouse (set designed by Adam Koch) owned by the parents of a 17-year-old white student who has come there to do some homework. Two older black men, longtime employees of the young man’s parents, go about their duties there — and have a little fun — drawing the easily distracted student into their world.

Willie (Daryl C. Brown) dreams of winning a ballroom dancing contest and is taking kindly, if occasionally mocking, instructions from his co-worker Sam, played with great charisma by Charlie Hudson III.

The idea of good dancing as a metaphor for good human relations in general is woven into the discussions that emerge between the student, Hally, aka “Master Harold” (Michael Littig), and Sam, who has the deeper and more complex bond with the young man.

The early, happy scenes of the three interacting and joking around are quite crammed with dialogue, ranging through history, politics, religion, literature and some compelling personal memories of the three.

Some action-oriented theater-goers may think they’ve wandered into a bit of a talkfest at this point. But the talk is worth hearing, and the action comes on strong in this 90-minute play once the lad’s weaknesses are forced into the open by thoughts of his drunken father’s return.

As evidenced by Friday’s opening performance, director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj knows when, in his appropriately earnest production, to step on the dramatic accelerator and when to drive home the play’s point that bitterness and scorn may yet prevail. He knows that the work’s ultimate let’s-keep-trying message presents not just a positive resolution to the show but a challenge to the audience as well.

This sobering, though cautiously uplifting, play provides a finely articulated alternative view to the one that too quickly seeks to declare long-standing problems finally solved.

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.