Written by Athol Fugard and premiering on the Broadway stage in 1982, “Master Harold”…and the boys
is an award-winning play that explores themes of racism and bigotry in South Africa during Apartheid.
The story opens one rainy afternoon in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Inside a St George’s Park tearoom, two black South African men of middle age—Sam and Willie—are bantering while cleaning the floor and practicing steps for an upcoming ballroom dance competition. Sam helps Willie with his dance moves and advises him about issues he’s having with his dance partner and girlfriend, Hilda. Willie accuses her of being unfaithful and complains she hasn’t shown up for practice. Sam points out that perhaps she hasn’t shown up because Willie beats her.
Hally, the 17-year-old son of the tearoom’s white owners, enters, returning from school. He playfully exchanges words with the two men, who are long-time family servants. Hally has a friendly relationship with the two, especially Sam. Willie is more subservient, calling Hally, Master Harold, while Sam is more paternal. Sam tells Hally that his mother is visiting his father at the hospital. Hally grows upset that his father—a violent, racist, alcoholic who lost his leg during World War II—may be coming home.
Hally and Sam discuss Hally’s schoolwork, thoughts on social reform, and who in history could be considered a “man of magnitude.” Napoleon, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Jesus are all discussed before they settle on Alexander Fleming. Then they reminisce about Hally’s childhood, when he would visit Sam in his servant’s room at the boarding house his mother owned. Hally recalls happy memories spent in the room. Willie joins in and soon they are happily chatting about their time together then, playing games and giving Hally brief escapes from what he remembers as a life of “nothing but misery.”
Hally remembers the time Sam made him a kite, and declares it his fondest memory. Hally was certain the toy, made from scraps, wouldn’t fly because, as he puts it, “What the hell does a black man know about flying a kite?” But, it flew, and Hally was ecstatic. He wonders why Sam wouldn’t sit with him on the bench that day in the park. Sam is evasive and simply says he had to work. Hally says it’s strange, a little white boy flying a kite with a black man old enough to be his father. When Sam asks if it’s strange because one was white and the other black, Hally says he supposes it would’ve been just as strange with his crippled father, then declares he sometimes wishes they were back in that room where life “felt the right size.”
Hally’s mother calls and tells him his father wants to come home, but Hally tries desperately to convince her to make him stay. He hangs up, but fearful his mother will give in to his father, Hally begins taking his feelings out on Sam, who calmly turns Hally’s attention to homework, which is to be an essay about a cultural event—something he has no interest in doing. Sam encourages him, and Hally settles to it; however, still frustrated and angry, Hally orders Sam to get back to work washing the windows.
Sam and Willie work and talk about the competition and Hilda, with Sam trying to convince Willie to stop hitting her. Hally becomes angry when they wind up in a scuffle near him, and demands they stop all the dancing nonsense and declares dancing a simple-minded activity. This starts a discussion with Sam about the merits of dance. Sam launches into a powerful description of dance as a metaphor
for life, a beautiful moment in time when there is a “world without collisions.” Hally is enchanted by this concept. He hatches on the idea of writing his essay about the dance event. Soon, all three are excitedly working away on the idea.
Another call from Hally’s mom interrupts them. She tells Hally she is coming home with his father. He furiously lays into her, but when she puts his father on, Hally’s tone becomes cheerful and welcoming. Hally hangs up, then explodes, viciously venting his pent-up resentments. When Sam says he shouldn’t speak ill of his dad, Hally’s fury targets Sam. He cruelly lashes out, deciding to treat Sam and Willie as his father does. He begins ordering them around and belittling them. He tells Sam he must call him Master Harold from now on. Sam tells him that if says it once, he will never call Hally anything else again, but Hally insists. He continues tearing apart their relationship with every word, despite Sam warning him to stop before it’s too late. Hally tells one of his father’s racist jokes, then spits in Sam’s face. Sam, tempted to hit Hally, backs off when Willie tells him that Hally is still just a little boy.
After Hally grows quiet, Sam lets loose. He recounts the time Hally, as a child, was called to get his drunken father from a bar, and how it was Sam who carried the man home on his back and cleaned him up. Sam laments that all he has tried to do is help Hally grow into a better man than his father, and fears he has failed. He tells Hally the reason he couldn’t sit with him on the bench in the park was because it was for whites only, and that if he isn’t careful, Hally will still be sitting alone on that bench one day.
Ashamed of himself, but not knowing how to fix things, Hally starts to leave. Stopping him, Sam asks if they should build another kite; but, Hally reminds him that it’s raining, and you can’t fly a kite in the rain. Hally leaves, and Willie comforts Sam by playing a song on the jukebox. The two men dance, and Willie tells Sam he won’t hit Hilda anymore.