By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
The play “Master Harold” … and the Boys ended its month-long run at ACT in San Francisco on June 3.
Playwright Athol Fugard begins and ends his play with the characters Sam and Willie practicing ballroom dancing. Dancing could be seen throughout the production as a metaphor for the way life should be lived, where nobody bumps into anyone or steps on anyone’s toes.
Athol Fugard wrote the play in the early 1980s when apartheid still split South Africa. He set his play in 1950, the year that the Suppression of Communism Act was passed in South Africa. The law was written in such ambiguous terms that virtually anyone and any organization opposed to the ruling National Party could be censored or arrested.
Also at that time, the Population Registration Act classified South Africans according to race and the Group Areas Act split cities and towns into segregated sections.
By 1983, a year after Fugard’s play premiered, more than 3.5 million Blacks had been cruelly expelled from towns and white rural areas.
Athol Fugard’s play is based on his own boyhood, growing up white in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where his mother bought a tea room. The characters of Sam and Willie were real people and Sam served as a father-figure during Fugard’s boyhood.
Fugard’s own father, whom he loved despite his cruelty and racism, was an alcoholic and crippled. Still, Fugard has said that he had had problems looking at Sam as a father because Sam was Black, and an Afrikaner boy cannot conceive of a having a Black father, not even as a surrogate.
He recalled that this conundrum, coupled with the pressures he felt as a teenager dealing with his parents’ problems, caused him to launch into the hateful argument we see at the play’s climax between the character Hally (Fugard’s actual nickname as a child) and Sam.
The argument ends with Hally spitting in Sam’s face, which, in fact, Fugard did in real life. He has admitted that, afterwards, he was overwhelmed with shame. He and Sam eventually made up. The biggest lesson he learned, he said, was when Sam, rather than giving him the “hiding of his life,” forgave him.
The play takes place in a well-appointed yet shabby tea room, a cozy shelter from the rain streaming down the outside of the windows. Willie, a busboy, played by Gregory Wallace, sings as he scrubs the floor. Sam, a waiter in a white bolero jacket and bow-tie, powerfully acted by Steven Anthony Jones, starts teaching Willie the waltz.
They are preparing to be contestants in a dance competition. Yet they don’t even have a coin between them to play the juke box to accompany their dance. Willie has only enough money for the bus home.
Enter Harold, or Hally, as he is called, played by the gifted 17-year-old Jonathan Sanders. As Hally chats playfully with the “the boys” about their contest, it is brought out that Hally’s life-learning has come at Sam’s knee, whereas Sam was educated through Hally’s school books.
Hally, ignored by his parents as a child, turned to Sam and Willie, finding their room through a labyrinth of dark passages-a metaphor for Hally’s eventual search for a way out of racism and the cruelty of apartheid.
One day many years ago, Sam made a kite out of brown paper, sticks, string, and glue while Hally looked on. “What does a Black man know about flying a kite?” the child had asked. Hally still hasn’t forgotten that event and that Sam taught him how to fly the kite, and then left him sitting on a bench, alone.
Now Hally learns from a phone call from his Mom that when his father comes home from the hospital Hally will have to bathe his ulcerous legs and empty his piss and phlegm pot. In other words, he will have to do what Blacks have done for centuries for their “owners” and bosses.
Hally’s anger grows as Sam and Willie go on and on explaining the beauty of ballroom dancing. If governments had rules like those of dance, Sam says, there would be no conflicts. But Hally shouts, thinking of his father, “You forgot about the cripples!”
Then Hally brings up an old wound. Why didn’t Sam sit on the bench with him and watch him fly his kite? Sam explains that he couldn’t because it was a “whites only” bench. “You know what that bench means now, and you can leave it anytime you choose. All you’ve go to do is stand up and walk away from it.”
After Hally storms out of the cafe, the anguished Willie decides to use his bus fare after all to play the juke box, even though it means walking home. From the juke comes the voice of Sarah Vaughn, singing, “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day.” Sam and Willie dance as the stage lights dim.
Two decades after it was written, “Master Harold” … and the boys is not at all dated. Unfortunately, despite the end of official apartheid in the “new” South Africa, and despite the end of legal segregation in this country, injustice born of racism lives on.