MASTER HAROLD...and the boys is a short play by Athol Fugard, taking place in South Africa during the apartheid era. It was first produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1982. The production subsequently played 344 performances on Broadway and transferred worldwide. It was banned by the South African government.
Seventeen year-old Hally spends time with two African servants, Sam and Willie, whom he has known all his life. On a rainy afternoon, Sam and Willie, both middle aged, are practicing ballroom steps in preparation for a major competition. Sam is quickly characterized as being the more worldly of the two. When Willie, in broken English, describes his ballroom partner as lacking enthusiasm, Sam correctly diagnoses the problem: Willie beats her if she doesn't know the steps.
Hally then arrives from school. Sam is on an equal intellectual footing with Hally; Willie, for his part, always calls the white boy "Master Harold." The conversation veers around wildly and then turns to Hally's 500-word English composition. The play reaches an emotional apex as the beauty of the ballroom dancing floor ("a world without collisions") is used as a transcendent metaphor for life and a creative paper topic... But almost immediately despair returns: Hally's tyrannical father has been in the hospital recently, undergoing medical complications due to the leg he lost in World War II, but it appears that today he is coming home. Hally, utterly distraught with this news, unleashes years of anger and pain on his two black friends, creating possibly-permanent rifts in his relationship with Sam, who now refuses to call him anything but "Master Harold." The play ends on this unhappy note, though Willie, at least, has resolved not to be such a tyrant when it comes to ballroom dancing.
The play is known to be semi-autobiographical, and is frequently cited as a depiction of how institutionalized racism, bigotry or hatred can become absorbed by those who live under it. It is also world-renowed for its sparse setting and design (its components are frequently described as "Three actors, one set and a black man's ass") and the sheer quality of its dialogue.
Awards and Adaptation
A made-for-television adaptation was produced in 1985, starring Matthew Broderick as Hally, Zakes Mokae as Sam, and John Kani replacing the Yale production's Danny Glover as Willie.