It is a rainy day in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The year is 1950. Because the poor weather is keeping customers away, the two black waiters at the St. George’s Park Tea Room, Sam and Willie, have some spare time on their hands. Sam reads comic books while Willie practices ballroom dance. Sam, who is a little older and wiser, coaches Willie through the foxtrot. Willie is practicing for the upcoming dance competition at the Centenary Hall in New Brighton. Willie complains that his dance partner, Hilda, hasn’t been showing up to practice, then confesses that Hilda may be keeping her distance because the last time they practiced he beat her for missing her steps. He thinks that she’s been sleeping with other men. Sam advises Willie to quit with the beatings. Hally, their employer’s seventeen-year-old son, enters in his high school uniform as Sam demonstrates his more expert dancing.
Sam serves Hally his supper, a bowl of pea soup, and tells Hally that his mother has gone to fetch his father, a drunken cripple, from the hospital. Hally seems perturbed by the news and skeptical because his father’s stay is supposed to last three more weeks. Hally is upset by the prospect of his father returning, and he insists Sam must be mistaken. Talk turns to school and the blows Hally received for drawing a caricature of his teacher. Sam starts reading Hally’s mathematics textbook, and the term “magnitude” soon leads the two into what both them of them consider to be the more agreeable subject of history. They discuss various “men of magnitude.” Hally’s favorites are Charles Darwin and Leo Tolstoy, while Sam prefers Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare. They both agree that Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, is a true genius. The three reenact some scenes of education from Hally’s boyhood that took place in Sam and Willie’s servants’ quarters. Sam and Hally alternated the roles of pupil and teacher while Willie took less interest in the lessons.
While reminiscing, Hally remembers a kite that Sam made for him one day. He recalls his embarrassment to be seen flying a shabby, homemade kite with a black man, and how his embarrassment melted away after the kite took off. He recalls wanting Sam to stay with him longer as he flew the kite from a bench on a hill. Hally’s mother phones from the hospital, and she and Hally argue after she says that, in fact, yes, Hally’s father is coming home. Hally is distraught at the news. He begins to take his anger out on Sam and Willie, who resume dance practice.
Hally is momentarily distracted out of his foul mood when he has the idea to write about Willie’s dance competition for a school assignment. Sam describes the event in vivid detail, and suggests that the dance floor is a slice of an ideal world, a world without collisions. Hally collapses back into his anger, arguing that their talk of an ideal world is “just so much bullshit.” Hally begins to be abusive with Sam, who has gently suggested Hally be more kind when speaking about his father. Hally counters that Sam should start calling him “Master Harold” instead of Hally. Then he tells a racist joke his father has shared with him about “a niggar’s arse.” He insists the joke is funny to Sam and Willie, who are dumbfounded. After some additional cruelty from Hally, Sam shows Hally his own backside. Then Sam adds some more detail to what, it turns out, was Hally’s half-remembered story about the kite. Sam had made the kite to distract Hally after a humiliating scene caused by Hally’s drunken father, and Sam left the bench because it was for whites only. Hally says that everything is pointless, and Sam, ever steady, advises him to pause and think things over because a lot of teaching has gone on. Hally leaves the tea room to meet his parents.
After Hally exits, Willie resolves to stop beating Hilda. He’s going to practice hard with her and do his best to win the competition. He decides to spend his bus fare on a jukebox song, and the play concludes with the two men dancing together. Sam leads and Willie follows.