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.
Willie Malopo and Sam Semela are forty-five-year-old black men who work at St. George’s Park Tea Room, a restaurant owned by a white family. The restaurant is empty because of heavy rains, so Willie practices his dance steps, coached by Sam. Willie had entered a dance contest, and he needs some advice from Sam, the more experienced dancer.
Sam, who is more educated than Willie, learns that Willie, who has a history of beating women, has hit his dance partner, Hilda Samuels. Sam encourages Willie to apologize to Hilda, but Willie does not feel he should have to apologize to a woman.
Hally, a seventeen-year-old student whose parents own the restaurant, comes into the Tea Room with a school bag and a wet coat as Sam is demonstrating his dancing ability. Hally learns from Sam that the hospital called and that Hally’s mother has gone there to pick up his disabled, alcoholic father. Hally tries to deny that his father is returning home. Later, Hally tries to convince Sam that he has not heard his mother’s message correctly.
While Sam calls the owner’s son “Hally,” Willie calls Hally “Master Harold.” Hally treats Sam as if he were a fellow pupil, and they discuss topics such as corporal punishment, social reform, and powerful historical people. Hally shares his problems from school as well as his dreams for writing books, short stories, and novels. Sam, who has created a competition between Hally and himself that helps Hally get better grades, tells Hally that he had gone from a fourth-grade to a ninth-grade education because of Hally.
Before they bought the restaurant, Hally’s parents had owned the old Jubilee Boarding House. Sam and Willie, then thirty-eight years old, had been tenants there, but they were called “boys” by Hally’s mother. Hally recalls his experiences visiting in Sam’s room at his parents’ boardinghouse. The best memory for Hally is the day Sam created a kite from brown paper, tomato-box wood, glue made from flour and water, and a tail made from Hally’s mother’s old stockings. Hally is embarrassed about the appearance of the kite, but he loves its flying ability.
Sam explains that the dance is the most important event of the year in New Brighton. Hally becomes interested in the event as a possible topic for his essay assignment. Hally knows that his English teacher does not like “natives,” or blacks, but Hally plans to point out that in “anthropological terms the culture of a primitive black society [included] its dancing and singing.” Sam helps Hally with the facts concerning the ballroom dancing contest. When Hally wants to know more about the dance scoring, Sam compares ballroom dancing to everyday collisions and world politics.
Just when Hally feels a bit optimistic about the future, his mother calls with news that his father is coming home. Sam listens to the conversation and tells Hally that his conversation with his mother “sounded like a bad bump.” Hally gets angry at Sam for interfering and realizes that there can be no world without collisions. Sam scolds Hally for calling his father a “cripple” and blaming the collisions in his life on his father. Hally’s shame toward his father turns to rage against Sam, and he demands that Sam, like Willie, call him “Master Harold.” Hally tells Sam an antiblack joke related to the definition of “fair” that he says he “learned from [his] father.” As a reaction to the punch line in the joke, Sam responds literally and pulls down his pants to show Hally his Basuto buttocks. Hally retaliates by spitting in Sam’s face, to which Sam responds by calling him Master Harold.
Sam tells Harold that he has made him feel dirtier than he has ever felt in his life because he is not sure how to wash off Harold’s and his father’s filth. Sam reminds Harold of the time they had to fetch Harold’s drunken father from the floor of the Central Hotel Bar. Harold had to go into the bar and ask permission for Sam, a black man, to go into the white bar. People crowded around to watch a black man carrying his drunken master on his back. Sam says that Hally had walked with downcast eyes and a heart filled with shame as he carried his father’s crutches. Hally had walked behind Sam as he carried his drunken father down the center of the town’s main street. Everyone in town watched the strange spectacle of a black servant carrying a drunk master.
Sam retells the story of making the kite because he wants Hally to look up and stop walking around with his eyes cast on the ground. Sam tells him that there is a twist to the short story: The bench to which Sam tied the kite is a whites-only bench, and only Hally can sit there.
Sam goes back to calling Harold “Hally” and tries to reconcile the differences with Hally, but he is unsuccessful. Hally leaves Sam and Willie alone in the restaurant to close up. Willie tries to lift Sam’s spirits by promising that he will find Hilda and tell her he is sorry. Willie uses his bus money to play “Little Man You’re Crying” in the jukebox so that he can dance with Sam.