It is a rainy day and there are no customers in the St. George’s Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where the black servants Sam and Willie work. Because they have the place to themselves, Willie sings as he cleans the floor with a rag then begins to practice ballroom dancing in preparation for an upcoming competition. Sam reads comic books at a table. Willie asks Sam to judge his dancing, and Sam tells Willie to relax. Willie is frustrated with the difficulty of dance.
The play opens with the two black servants, Sam and Willie, at ease. They have a rare opportunity to speak freely at work because the rain has kept away the customers and they are alone. Is it a coincidence that the two men can enjoy such freedom only when their white bosses or white customers aren’t around? Dance is presented, from the very beginning, as means of escaping life as it is.
Sam and Willie discuss movie star dancers and romance as a metaphor for dance. Willie says he doesn’t have any romance left for his dancing partner, Hilda. She doesn’t come to practice, he says, and she sleeps with other men. Sam gets Willie to admit he’s been beating Hilda when she misses steps and has scared her away.
In an effort to help Willie with his practice, Sam gives a demonstration of the quickstep. He is a great dancer. Hally, the owner’s son enters at the door to see the end of Sam’s performance. Willie springs to attention to wait on Hally while Sam is more casual. Sam tells Hally that his mom has gone to pick up his father, who is a crippled war veteran, from the hospital.
Sam is not just a great dancer in the literal sense that he can move well on the dance floor—he is a great dancer in the symbolic sense that dance takes throughout the play as well. He knows how to move gracefully in complex and often trying social situations, and is doing his part to try to make a world without collisions.
Hally is unhappy at the news, and because Sam only overheard his mother talking on the phone, he argues that Sam must be mistaken. Sam serves him soup at the table with comic books on it, and Hally calls them rubbish and has him take them away.
Hally’s unhappiness at his father’s potential return creates a sense of mystery and foreboding—why is their relationship so strained? What is Hally dreading? This begins to set up the play’s main conflict.
Hally and Willie banter about dance and Willie accidentally hits Hally with his washrag. Hally tells “the boys” to get back to work and presses for more details about his father coming home. It’s clear he’s troubled at the prospect. He concludes Sam misunderstood.
Already Hally’s latent and, at least partially, unconscious racism begins to show. Does Hally not trust Sam because Sam only overheard his mother on the phone, because he doesn’t want what Sam has told him to be true, or because Sam is black? This ambiguity (all the options are possible, and not mutually exclusive) also begins to build tension among the characters.
Hally starts to do his school work at the table and Sam grabs a mathematics book of Hally’s. He laughs at a caricature Hally has drawn of his mathematics teacher. Hally tells how he received six strokes on the backside for the drawing. Sam asks if it was with his trousers down, and, when he learns the answer is no, describes how black men are brutally beaten with a cane in prison. Hally tells him to stop with the description, it’s too gruesome.
Sam quickly demonstrates his thirst for learning and education, while Hally’s caricature of his teacher shows that Hally has taken his learning for granted. The beatings described are grossly unequal. Hally’s attempt to censor Sam’s description of the very real racist oppression happening in South Africa clues us in to his moral blindness. Hally, it’s clear, is morally lazy.
Hally says that progress is possible and society might one day be changed for the better thanks to the help of yet unknown social reformers. Sam reads from Hally’s mathematics textbook and asks for the definition of “magnitude,” which Hally defines as “how big [something] is.” They discuss some other math terms and joke about Hally’s poor performance on math exams. Hally argues that great geniuses have often failed to distinguish themselves in school.
Hally, though lazy, is not unintelligent. But he is vain. Despite his poor performance in school he wants to imagine himself as a great man. Does he take it for granted that he is or will be great in part because he is white? Hally seems to think that societal problems can only be solved by solitary great figures. He doesn’t consider the possibility that mutual cooperation and smaller efforts by ordinary people might be what’s required.
Now Sam takes the history textbook from Hally’s school case. He turns at random to some lines about the French General and later Emperor Napoleon. The lines concern his social reforms. Sam describes him as a man of magnitude. Hally disagrees, but admits his disagreement might only be because the Napoleon section is long and crammed with dates he’s required to memorize.
Hally’s refusing to acknowledge Napoleon as a “man of magnitude” because the section on him in his history book is a couple pages long is rather comical. It provides some shading to Hally’s arrogance. Meanwhile, we see Sam continue to pursue his education in his own, subtle way.
Sam asks Hally whom he would choose as a man of magnitude, and Hally says Charles Darwin. Sam disagrees. He found the bit of reading he did in The Origin of the Species to be tedious. Sam isn’t sure he believes in it. Hally asks Sam for a counterproposal and Sam names Abraham Lincoln. Hally tells Sam he’s being sentimental because he was never a slave and that a better social reformer to admire would be William Wilberforce.
From the way Sam poses questions to Hally, it seems that Sam is taking upon himself the role of Hally’s teacher. Hally’s ignorance, entitlement, and arrogance in telling a black man which white abolitionist—Lincoln or Wilberforce— he should prefer are so deftly woven into the story that it would be easy for the first time reader to miss their full weight. Its interesting that Sam doesn't believe in Darwin's theories as some have used those theories, under the name Social Darwinism, to argue that white economic and political power is a product of white racial superiority.
Sam suggests William Shakespeare, but Hally says Sam’s only read the play Julius Caesar and that the language in Shakespeare should be brought up to date. Hally proposes Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, because he was both an author and a social reformer. Sam suggests Jesus, and Hally argues with him not to get religious. Sam suggests the scientist Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, and the two agree he is a great man. Hally brags that he has educated Sam.
Hally is so cocksure, so blind to history, he thinks that the poetry of Shakespeare could and should be improved with a contemporary rendering. Hally’s atheism is pronounced, and it’s clear he is intolerant of other religious or spiritual beliefs. It seems odd, that of all the men the two mention, they agree on the greatness of Alexander Fleming. Perhaps there is an underlying statement being made about pragmatism. Penicillin, after all, has done direct good for millions of people since its discovery. Yet its notable that Hally sees their agreement as a product of him having educated Sam.
Sam recalls his first lesson, a lesson in geography he was able to get from Hally when Hally had come to his and Willie’s servants’ quarters at the back of the Jubilee Boarding House Hally’s mother used to run. The three now reenact scenes of geography lessons as well as Hally’s mother’s coming to find him. Hally says he’d get “a rowing” for being caught with them. Then he recalls two girls, prostitutes, who used to live at the boarding house.
The precedent and history of the education and exchange between Hally and Sam is established in this section. Sam, in his late 30s in the time of the memory, knew nothing of his country’s basic geography. This is one of the many things his country has withheld from him by virtue of the color of his skin, and is a powerful metaphor for the way white men have separated black men from their own land in South Africa. As a child, apparently, Hally didn’t draw the racial distinctions he has come more and more to embrace through his adolescence.
Hally spent so much time with Sam and Willie there that he recalls having walked in on Sam with a girl by accident. Hally says he isn’t interested in girls. Hally recreates the old room using chairs as props for the beds and tables. The three play themselves. Sam cuts his toenails while Hally beats Willie at checkers. Willie says that Sam and Hally cheated at checkers and chess, but they say, no, they were just better.
This, and the other plays within the play, is a nod to the works of Shakespeare, whose genius Hally earlier questioned. Shakespeare’s plays frequently employed this play-within-a-play device. The checkers games establishes Hally and Sam as equally smart, and the moral tension of the story is therefore between the two of them.
Hally tells Sam to guess his favorite memory, and goes on to recall coming into Sam’s room and finding Sam in the process of making him a kite. Sam took him to fly it on a hill, he remembers, and Hally was afraid other children would see him and laugh at him for flying a kite with a black man. Sam says he remembers Hally’s embarrassment and Hally describes how shabby the homemade kite was.
One of the play’s main symbols, the kite, is introduced. Here we get the first half of the kite story, Hally’s version of the story, the half of the story that he could see from his vantage as a white person. Even as a child, when Sam and Willie were his main companions, Hally was keenly aware that the two men were of a different race and class than his own.
Next, Hally tells how Sam told him to run and remembers how his embarrassment and anxiety melted away when the kite took off flying. He describes it as “the most splendid thing he had ever seen” and says that he was sad when Sam left him alone. Sam responds quietly that he had work to do. When Hally asks Sam why he made the kite, Sam says he can’t remember why.
The kite takes over as a metaphor for transcending racial differences. After experiencing the elation of flight, Hally forgets his embarrassment and wants Sam to remain with him. Sam’s quietness (explicitly written in the stage directions) foreshadows that there is more to the story about the kite.
Hally says that a black man and white boy flying a kite is strange. Sam asks him why, and Hally counters that it would have been just as strange to fly a kite with his crippled father. He says it would make a nice short story, but they would have to find a twist for the ending. As it is, he says, it’s too straightforward and lacks drama.
Hally is unable to explain why a white boy flying a kite with a black man is “strange”—instead, he complains that he has been dealt a poor hand in life. Of course, Hally doesn’t see that he has it better than both his crippled father and , in his society, any black man, just as he doesn’t see the true drama of the story of the kite.
Hally’s mother phones from the hospital. Sam answers and gives the phone to Hally. When he learns she is bringing his father home, Hally tells her to order his father back into bed. He begs her to keep his father in the hospital. When he finishes the conversation, he tells Sam and Willie to do the windows when they’re done with the floor. He says his father can get better care at the hospital than at home.
In this section, Hally reveals the extent of his anxiety over seeing his father. He seems at once to be terrified of his father, too lazy to help with his care, embarrassed for him, and afraid of him. Once angry, Hally immediately lashes out at Sam and Willie, making himself feel better by asserting his mastery over them, barking orders and commands when before the three had been getting along like friends.
Hally tells Sam and Willie they heard right, his father is coming home. His mother won’t be able to convince him to stay in the hospital. When Sam comments that at least his father will have Hally and Hally’s mother at home, Hally complains that they’ll also have him. Anytime something is going along all right, Hally says, someone or something will come along and spoil everything.
Sam, displaying his experience and wisdom, tries to get Hally to see the good aspects of what Hally sees as a terrible situation. Won’t Hally be able to positively influence his father, to help his father get better? Rather than recognize the truth in Sam’s words, Hally dismisses Sam, at least in part because Sam is black.
Sam asks Hally about his homework. The assignment is to “Write five hundred words describing an annual even of cultural or historical significance.” Hally complains that it’s boring. Hally tells Sam and Willie to get back to work.
Among his many roles, Sam takes on the part of father figure or parent to Hally, trying both to get his mind off the “bad” news and to coax him through his schoolwork.
Sam waltzes over to Willie and Willie practices the same steps. Sam says that maybe Hilda will come back that night, but Willie says, no, he beat her too badly. He considers withdrawing from the contest or, alternatively, taking leave from work to practice with a new partner every day. Sam gets frustrated with trying to talk sense into Willie and says he gives up. Willie blames Sam for setting him up with Hilda as a dancing partner.
Sam dances as if to keep himself afloat above Hally’s rising temper. Having failed with Hally, he tries to spread his positivity to Willie, but Willie, also, persists with his bad attitude. Finally, Sam starts to get frustrated with his companions’ childish behavior. The idea that it’s Sam’s fault that Hilda left Willie is simply absurd, and yet the absurdity of Willie blaming Sam makes it clear that Hally blaming Sam is just as absurd.
Sam sings a song about Willie dancing with his pillow, and, losing his temper, Willie charges at Sam. Hally yells at the two men to stop fooling around and hits Willie in the backside with a ruler. Willie tells him to hit Sam, too. Hally complains that a customer might have seen the two of them fighting and concludes that he has been too lenient with them. He helps himself to ice cream and a cool drink from behind the counter. He says there is more to life than “trotting around a dance floor.”
Hally passes along the aggression he was subjected to at school by striking Willie. He resorts to violence to give himself a sense of control and make himself feel better, at the expense of his less powerful black friends. Then Hally comes up with the excuse that a customer might have seen the men dancing to justify and explain away his aggression. He eats ice cream and drinks a cool drink, oblivious to how doing so only displays his own hypocrisy.
Sam says dancing is a harmless pleasure, and Hally says it’s a simple-minded pleasure that doesn’t challenge the intellect. Sam says it does other things, like make people happy. Hally complains that his efforts to educate Sam have clearly failed because Sam takes dancing seriously. Sam asks what’s wrong with admiring something beautiful, to which Hally responds that a foxtrot isn’t beautiful.
As if he’s angry that Sam and Willie don’t share his dejection, Hally begins to begrudge them their one small pleasure, dance. Why should they be allowed to dance while he is miserable? Again, Hally reveals his own glib ignorance when he calls Sam ignorant for thinking that dance can be beautiful.
Hally says that dance isn’t art and that art is “the giving of meaning to matter” or “the giving of form to the formless.” Sam, deferential, says that maybe it’s not art, but it’s still beautiful. He says if Hally needs proof he should come see the competition at the Centenary Hall in New Brighton. The championships, says Sam, aren’t just another dance.
It is mind boggling that Hally can’t see that dance gives form to the motions of a body in space. To Sam, what is beautiful—what moves you as a person—is more important than what is art, which is a somewhat artificial designation made by society (and as the apartheid in South Arica shows, society’s dictates aren’t always good or just).
Sam begins to describe the festive atmosphere at the dance hall, the lights, the excitement, the music by Mr. Elijah Gladman and his Ochestral Jazzonians, and the climax of the evening when the winners are announced. Hally begins to ask more questions about the event, where it's held, how often, and concludes that, though he’ll be stretching the assignment by calling ballroom dance a “cultural event” he going to write about it for his paper.
Sam is such a great story teller, so accomplished at creating environment and scene, that he soon has Hally hanging on his every word. Hally, meanwhile, doesn’t recognize that dance, despite the fact that none is going on before his eyes, has already entranced him. He is blind to the backhanded insults he is dealing Sam and Willie by refusing to acknowledge their art as art or their culture as culture.
Hally says his English teacher will argue with him because he “doesn’t like natives,” but, Hally says, he will point out to his teacher that the culture of primitive black society includes singing and dancing. He begins to press Sam for facts, asking how many finalists there are (six couples) and for a description of the final dance.
Hally is more interested in arguing and showing off than the truth. He decides to write about the dance competition not because it perfectly fits the assignment or because he likes it, but because writing about black people will upset his teacher. Perhaps he even agrees with his English teacher’s racist views.
Sam pretends to announce the final couples, including Willie, and Willie calls for music from the jukebox to create the atmosphere. Sam says he only has bus fare and, if he plays the jukebox, he won’t be able to take the bus, and Hally thinks about taking some money from the till (cash register) but decides against it. They’ll just have to imagine it, he says.
Sam continues to spread positivity and to empower his friends by giving Willie an opportunity to imagine himself in the final round. It is a rare moment of equality between the three characters, here, when Hally, because of his youth, and Sam and Willie, because of the way their exploited because of the color, don’t have the money even for a song on the jukebox.
Hally asks if there are any penalties for stumbling or doing something wrong. Sam and Willie laugh. Sam explains that the finalist’s dance is a kind of ideal world, “a world without collisions.” Sam says “it’s beautiful because that is what we want life to be like.” When Hally asks him if watching six couples dream about the way it should be is enough, Sam says he doesn’t know, but that’s where it starts.
One reason Hally might discourage Sam and Willie from dancing is simply that he knows less about it than they do. Hally dismisses, consciously or not, anything he knows less about than a black man as something not worth knowing. Sam articulates a metaphor about dance as the idealized expression of an ideal world.
Sam says there are a few people who have got past just dreaming about it and are actually doing something right, like Mahatma Gandhi. Hally says when it comes down to it the United Nations is like a dancing school for politicians.
Hally’s mom phones again, this time from a private telephone—presumably, her home phone. She has brought his father back home. Hally complains and tells her he hopes she knows what she’s gotten the two of them into. He says he’s sick and tired of emptying chamber pots full of phlegm and piss. He reveals that his father has borrowed money Hally needed for his school books in order to buy alcohol and warns her to hide her bag again to keep his father from stealing from it.
Just when Hally is beginning to see things from Sam’s perspective, he is interrupted. Hally still thinks dreaming is an impractical all or nothing activity, rather than part of a process. His conversation reveals some of the burdens involved with caring for his father, who demands, at least to Hally, a tremendous amount of physical and psychological care.
After protesting, Hally speaks to his father and we can see that Hally is genuinely conflicted. He is gentle and kind when speaking to the man. His mother comes back on the line and tells him to remember to bring a bottle of brandy home. He tells her he’s locking up the store and getting ready to go.
Hally’s abrupt shift in register when talking to his father reveals another side of him—perhaps he is more than just a spoiled brat, maybe he can overcome the prejudices he has been consciously and unconsciously adopting and grow up to be a decent man.
Hally is disconsolate and silent after hanging up the phone. Sam tries to comfort him, and Hally tells Sam to mind his own business. Sam tries to distract Hally with more talk of the dance competition, but Hally tears up the page he had been writing on. Hally calls all their talk of a world without collisions “just so much bullshit.” He goes to pack up the comic books and brandy for his father, but smashes the brandy bottle on the floor. He says that what’s wrong with Sam’s dream is that it leaves out the cripples who make people trip and fall on their backsides.
Sam tries to show Hally that to be a decent man, he will have to stop seeing the world as all or nothing, black and white. Yes, reality comes knocking on the door, but does this mean he should rip any bit of progress to shreds? Hally’s destructiveness continues when he smashes the brandy bottle. He is both channeling his own frustration and, perhaps futilely, trying to keep his father away from his harmful addiction. Now Hally has no empathy for cripples and hates broken things.
Sam tells Hally to be careful of the things he’s saying, warning him not to speak ill of his father. This advice sends Hally over the edge. Hally yells at Sam and tells Sam he is the one who needs to be careful. He tells him to shut up and finish his work, to mind his own business. He tells Sam he is a servant and that Hally’s father is his boss. Sam corrects that Hally’s mother is his boss.
Hally’s arrogance—his refusal to see himself as wrong—probably more than any of his other traits, bleeds into racism. Hally relies on being “the boss” whenever Sam tells him something he doesn’t want to admit is true. Now Hally’s hypocrisy—and the full extent of his racism—begin to show in full force.
Hally tells Sam that his father’s being a white man should be enough for him, and Sam says he’ll try to forget Hally said that. Sam cautions Hally again and says that they need to be careful what they say to each other. Hally tells Sam to stop telling him what to do and to start calling him Master Harold, just as Willie does.
Hally says his father will be glad to hear about the lesson he has given Sam in respect, and tells one of his father’s jokes: “It’s not fair is it, Hally? —What, chum? —A nigger’s arse.” He says they both laugh at it. Sam asks Hally how he knows it's not fair if he’s never seen one. Then he drops his trousers and underpants and presents Hally his backside. He tells Hally that now he can make his father even happier when he goes home with the report that the joke about a black man’s ass is true.
Rather than acknowledge Sam’s wisdom and gentle lesson in humility, Hally rushes to the defense of the father he had just been insulting. Not only is Hally’s father’s joke exceptionally racist—it hinges on an irrelevant, trivial pun. Hally and his father laugh, not because the joke is funny, but to revel in their sense of superiority. Sam, though humble, also knows when to take a stand.
Hally spits in Sam’s face and Sam starts calling him Master Harold. Sam warns Master Harold that he has hurt only himself. He asks Willie if he should hit Hally, and Willie tells him not to because it won’t help and he’ll only hurt himself. Hally, Willie says, is a little boy, a little white boy.
Sam bears his oppression with so much dignity that, whenever he calls Hally Master Harold, it sounds like an insult rather than a term of respect. Willie sees the injustice of the situation clearly. He believes Hally should be hit, but also knows that the beating Sam would end up getting would be ten times worse.
Sam tells Hally that Hally doesn’t know what he’s done. Hally has made him, Sam says, feel dirtier than he has ever felt in his life and convinced him that he is a failure. Sam then reveals the rest of the story about the kite: how Hally’s father got drunk, passed out, and soiled himself on the floor of the Central Hotel Bar and Hally had come to Sam to help carry him out. He even had to ask permission to let a black man in the bar.
Sam reminds Hally of who his father is and how he has been blind to the privileges he gets just for being white. Sam feels like a failure because he has been striving to educate Hally, to be a role model for him, and Hally has not even seen it. He has forgotten the most crucial elements of all of his most important lessons.
After the incident, Sam says, Hally was dejected for days. Sam made the kite to try and cheer Hally up, and the reason he left Hally on his own once the kite was up and flying was that, without realizing it, Hally had sat down on a “whites only” bench to fly it and Sam couldn’t sit there. Hally packs up his things and asks Willie to lock up for him.
Hally’s racism started as something unconscious; if he wants to counteract it, Sam suggests, he will have to consciously work to undo it. Hally’s response could suggest either that he has taken a deaf ear to Sam’s lesson or, possibly, that he sees some of the truth in what Sam is saying and needs time to process, reflect, and grow.
Sam asks Hally to wait. He says he has no business telling Hally how to be a man if he doesn’t behave like one himself. He says they should fly another kite on another day, and that they should both be mindful of all the teaching that went on in the tea room that day. He tells Hally he can stand up and walk away from “that bench.” Hally exits.
Sam recognizes that he hasn’t been perfect as a role model, and takes the first step toward un-writing his own (albeit slight) hypocrisy by acknowledging that it exists. Sam wants to lead by example, not with words. As usual, he sees the events of the day as an opportunity to learn. Where Hally sees knowledge as something he is inherently entitled to, for Sam, learning is difficult, but good and necessary, work.
Willie tries to comfort Sam and tells him that he’s thought about what Sam said and decided not to beat Hilda anymore, to find her and say he is sorry. He then announces that he can walk home and decides to spend his bus fare on a song from the juke box, and the two men dance to a song sung by the singer Sarah Vaughn. Sam leads and Willie follows.
Willie’s resolution not to beat Hilda (and thereby not to pass along the oppression he’s subject to at the hands of white bosses) is an indication that small steps can be made in the right direction if we are willing to learn from what we see. Sam and Willie’s dance is a stunning instance of the beauty that results when the real comes together with the ideal, when dance and dream give form to the formless.