In Apartheid-era South Africa, black lives are matter to be exploited for their usefulness. They keep a social system limping along that is congenitally hobbled by class and caste, defined vindictively by race, and subordinating its inhabitants accordingly. Three characters appear in this one-act play, brilliantly constructed by Athol Fugard, a South African Caucasian, and set in Port Elizabeth. His incisive prophecy finds a voice in the characters of Sam (L. Peter Callender), Willie (Adrian Roberts), Hally (Andrew Humann), and three others who never appear, but nonetheless complete the story.
Sam, 50-ish and Black, is a family retainer who began attending the now 17-year-old Hally when the teenager was a child growing up in the family-owned Jubilee Boarding House. Hally’s father, disabled and a drunk, couldn’t walk without the aid of crutches, or toilet himself without Hally’s assistance.
Sam, on the other hand, is something of an expert Ballroom dancer, and the show opens as he coaches Willie for an upcoming competition. During the rise of the African National Congress, whose chosen leader Nelson Mandela sits in a Robben Island prison, they have become confident servants who work at the family’s less-than-jubilant enterprise—a run-down tearoom. While Willie, on his knees, scrubs the dining room floor, mentor Sam remains upright, busying himself with staging lunch for one. In literal and figurative terms, Sam talks down to Willie, who is the more rough and tumble of the two, and the one less inclined to reconcile himself to a hated system in decline.
Hally’s father heads a metaphorical if crumbling hierarchy, with Hally and his mother as its captive subordinates. Sam is stationed on the next lowest rung on what has become a rickety social ladder, given the system’s internal contradictions and the challenges to apartheid mounted by the ANC and its adherents. Even thirty years in advance of Apartheid’s demise, South Africans—Black and white–have internalized all of its pernicious social implications and applications, while growing numbers simultaneously oppose it. So Willie takes his place below Sam, and beneath Willie are the dance partners Willie punishes with “hidings ” when they err during rehearsal, with the consequence that they all quit dancing with him. While Sam and Willie are bantering about Willie’s non-starter habits, Hally enters, in pursuit of lunch. On this day, Hally is their master in lieu of his mother, who is at the hospital tending to his father. Hally nonetheless contributes more than his two cents to the banter, working overtime to confect familiarity and equanimity in a way that almost rings true, until it doesn’t. The resulting conversation takes an ugly turn.
In the early exchanges between the three, we learn that when he was a child Hally neglected his studies, and that Sam pored over the boy’s undisturbed textbooks, thereby educating himself in the official whites-only version of history and geography. We also discover that Sam once fashioned a kite out of flotsam and jetsam for the boy. Sam tethered it to a bench that we later learn bore a sign reading “Whites Only,” meaning Sam could appoint it with his hand-made kite, but not sit on it to wait for the boy to retrieve it.
Hally’s maturation follows choreography of its own, where he takes one step forward and two back, owing to a particularly bitter cynicism that germinates in a culture where being white means always being right. So, in fits and starts, Hally surfaces for gulps of enthused enlightenment from Sam, while the more grounded Willie keeps his counsel. Without Sam’s spirited and spiritual interventions, Hally would be flailing in the mire of lukewarm hopes and sophomoric nostrums, for which entitlement and privilege are the feedstock.
The young man expresses his considered opinion that Ballroom is the perfect metaphor for life, where couples can make a mistake, bump into one another, and continue on. To the contrary, Sam insists, Ballroom is nothing like life: it must always be perfect. No missteps, let alone collisions, will be tolerated.
No sooner than those words are spoken, than a cascade of phone calls arrives from Hally’s mother. The messages they import cause the intoxicating and jovial world inside the tearoom to collide head-on with the fragmenting one outside of it. Phone in hand, Hally by turns excoriates his mother for giving in to his father’s wish to return home, only to impose his noxious dependency on Hally, covers his academic lapses with lies that blame them on his father’s drinking, and when speaking with his father, turns on the charm, the picture of filial duty, now a chummy, and adoring fan of his father’s company. Once off the phone, Hally executes another 180, and visits his rancorous rage upon the two servants.
When Sam takes the substantial risk of upbraiding Hally for his disrespect, the angered Hally pulls rank, itself the elephant that has waited patiently in the room to become a fourth character in this drama. Hally insists that Sam address him as “Master Harold,” recounts a racist joke that he says his father told him. When in response to the joke, Sam abandons any pretense of genuine deference, Hally spits on Sam. Sam then resorts to a chokehold to restrain the fit-to-kill Willie, who lunges at the ingrate bigot.
Sam regains his composure, and makes one last attempt to re-knit the torn fabric of his relationship with the unraveling Hally, but it is too late. The shattering reality is that Hally sees that in exposing his racist false bearings, he has exiled himself from the thinly populated poor man’s oasis where he previously sought succor, and is now a citizen without portfolio, and so takes his leave.
In the play’s final moments, Willie drops coins that had been earmarked as bus fare home into the jukebox. Sarah Vaughn’s “Little Man” comes up. Willie and Sam take one last turn around the floor, Sam draped morbidly over Willie’s shoulder, as if Willie’s now erect spine was all that stood between Sam and Willie’s erstwhile place, prostrate on the floor.
L. Peter Callender’s command of his role carries the day. He locates Sam, not only in the text but also in a little lilt of laughter that punctuates what would be throwaway lines were it not for the kernels of wisdom they pretend to impart. The laughter offsets Sam’s pedagogy with a stylized insouciance. Callender rolls the rhythm of the Bulawayan accent quite naturally around its quaint lexicon. His body mirrors a soul belonging to the inner ballroom dancer, not the outer collision-generating system that he has navigated warily. There is a practiced economy in his movements, deliberate as they are graceful, attuned to the beats marking the rise and fall of plot twists. Andrew Humann is deft in his Hally portrayal, as forthcoming and congenial in his rich exchanges with Sam and Willie as he is icily manipulative and vitriolic in switchback reversions to racist type.
Humann’s age—about a decade too old for the role of a 17-year-old, detracts from what is otherwise trenchant believability. In spite of efforts by dialect coach, Lisa Anne Porter, he is not at home with the cadence and pronunciation of the Boer/British-influenced English dialect, so that the “i” for “e” substitution that he has mastered quite nicely in his “Yyis” [Yes], invites an odious comparison with the pronunciations that lag behind it. Adrian Roberts made only tentative friends with the regional speech pattern, his attempts waxing more West Indian than South African.
With both actors, the diction lapses are distractions, though not fatal ones. Roberts’ robust physicality is exactly right for the role of Willie, perhaps the most difficult of the three to play. What goes missing is a consistent capture of the prescience that underlies Willie’s reticence to court a friendship with Hally. It’s what gives rise to his role reversal with Sam when the gloves come off, and the real deal becomes apparent to everyone in the house.
Timothy Near’s keen direction shapes talent and story into a riveting reminder of the revolutionary manifest destiny that freed Mandela from the Robben Island prison. It presaged an end to Apartheid, and at the same time, across the Atlantic, compelled Mandela’s contemporary in Grenada, Maurice Bishop, to declare “Forward Ever, Backward Never!” Those words echo today, living long after Bishop’s untimely assassination in tandem with a 1983 invasion of that island by the very same U.S. bi-partisan government that lent its unconditional support to South Africa’s apartheid regime.