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Theatre / "Master Harold"... and the Boys

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A 1982 play by noted South African playwright Athol Fugard, "Master Harold"... and the Boys is a one-act play about racism. It is also an exercise in minimalism: it involves only three actors, a restaurant, and a black man's ass.

It's St. George's Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, during The Apartheid Era. Two black servers, Sam and Willie, are hanging around waiting for something to happen; they practice ballroom dancing in the meantime, as both are competing in two weeks. The problem is, Willie's partner Hilda can't learn the steps right, so Willie beats her. (Well, she may also be sleeping around.) Sam is a better dancer, and Willie's speech is rendered in a "You No Take Candle" Funetik Aksent.

The seventeen-year-old son of the (white) restaurant owners enters. Sam calls him "Hally", Willie "Master Harold." Hally, like many teenagers, thinks he knows everything, but as he chats with "the boys" it becomes clear that he takes the White Man's Burden seriously as well, belittling them constantly (though generally without malice). This despite the fact that Sam has become a bit of a father surrogate for Hally, whose actual father is a bitter drunk who lost his leg during the war. Attention is drawn to a heartwarming occasion when Hally was young, in which Sam built him a kite and taught him to fly it.

Hally sets out to do his homework, a 500-word English composition on an event of cultural significance, and becomes enamored with Sam's discussion of ballroom dancing, describing it as "a world without collisions." But before Hally can set pencil to paper, the phone rings. It's Hally's mother. His father went to the hospital a while ago for pains relating to his injury, but since then has decided to return. Before anybody can stop him, he's ensconced in his bedroom, and Hally can look forward to his home life becoming a living hell. In his fury, he turns on Sam, racially belittling him, demands Sam call him "Master Harold" to show him respect, and spits in his face.

One messy argument later, Sam hearkens back to the tale of the kite, which Master Harold had considered using for his English composition but rejected because it lacked a Twist Ending. Sam tells him what he forgot: that a few days before, the city authorities had called Harold's mother to come pick up her husband, who was drunk on the floor at the hotel bar. Their little boy Hally was the other one home, and he had to bring a black servant, Sam, to help with the pickup. Hally walked through life humiliated from then on... until Sam put a kite in the air and a smile on his face. Hally sat on a bench and watched it fly... But Sam couldn't, because the bench was "Whites Only." As the play ends, Master Harold goes back to his cold home, but Willie promises to find Hilda and apologize to her.

At the very least, check out some of the talent that has been drawn to it over the years. Hally was originated by Ċ½eljko Ivanek, played in a Made-for-TV Movie by Matthew Broderick, and in a 2010 movie release by Freddie Highmore. Sam was originated by Zakes Mokai and, opposite Highmore, portrayed by Ving Rhames. And the original Willie? Danny Glover.

This play provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Dumbass Has a Point: Willie provides the voice of reason during Sam and Hally's argument. In-universe, Hally treats most insights from the two black men this way.
  • Mooning: Sam shows his after the following provocation:
    "[My dad]'s got a marvelous sense of humor. Want to know what our favorite joke is? He gives out a big groan, you see, and says: "It's not fair, is it, Hally?" Then I have to ask, "What, chum?" And then he says: "A nigger's arse"... and we both have a good laugh."
  • My God, What Have I Done?: After Hally spit in Sam's face, he is so overcome with remorse, that he can barely speak to him, nor look at him.