As the play opens on a rainy afternoon in the St. George’s Park Tea Room, two black waiters, Sam and Willie, are cleaning up while discussing a forthcoming dance contest that they plan to enter. Willie is having some difficulty mastering certain steps; Sam, the more expert dancer, is instructing him. There is a light mood of camaraderie between them, as the third character, a seventeen-year-old white boy, Hally, enters.
This is his mother’s tearoom, and it is quickly established that Hally has known these two men since he was a young child, when they were servants in his parents’ boarding house. The relationship, especially with Sam, involves some easy bantering about those bygone days with Hally hiding in Sam’s room, cooperation on homework assignments, and an essay that Hally must write describing a cultural event. What is bothering Hally at the moment, however, is his family situation.
His crippled, alcoholic father has been in the hospital, and when his mother telephones the tearoom, Hally tries unsuccessfully to persuade her to leave him there. She refuses, and when the boy realizes that life with his father at home will resume that very night, he is furious and vents his anger and hatred with some violence. Sam tries to stem Hally’s vitriolic outpouring, but he succeeds only in diverting the boy’s wrath to himself. This culminates in Hally asserting his position as “Master Harold” and finally spitting in Sam’s face. At first, Sam’s reaction is great anger, but that quickly subsides as Willie reminds him that Hally is “just a child.”
In their reminiscences, Sam and Willie speak of a kite that Sam made for Hally, one made of tomato-box wood and brown paper, using flour and water for glue and old stockings for the tail, with scraps of string tied together so the boy could hold it. Hally had hoped no classmates would be up on the hill; he was sure that his kite would not fly—but it did. It flew high, dipped, and flew even higher. Then Sam left Hally because “he had work to do.”
After Hally’s hateful act against his friend, Sam tells him why he had made the kite. It was meant to comfort the child who had been publicly humiliated as he went home from the hotel bar, carrying his father’s crutches, and trailing after the big black man who carried the unconscious drunk on his back. Sam also explains that he could not sit with Hally to fly the kite because the bench had been marked: “whites only.” A resumption of the relationship between Sam and Hally seems impossible. Still, Sam talks of making and flying another kite and of Hally’s realizing that he need not sit on the bench alone. The boy leaves, and the play ends with Sam tutoring Willie in his dance steps.
There is a parallel between this play and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In that novel Jim, a black man, acts as Huck’s surrogate father; in the play Sam assumes the same role. Hally and Huck have alcoholic fathers who behave without concern for their sons; both children have ambiguous feelings toward the natural parent. Both also finally perceive the nature of unselfish love.
This play is possibly the most autobiographical of all Fugard’s work. His mother’s tearoom, his crippled, alcoholic father, and the experience of spitting in a black man’s face are all factual. With consummate skill the playwright dramatically weaves these strands into a powerful text that successfully illuminates both the South African experience and emotions common to all audiences.