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The emergence of Athol Fugard’s work in the ‘70s and ‘80s played a crucial role in opening the eyes of a wider world to the horror of apartheid South Africa at a time when that country was living in a colonial haze and blithely going on as if in a state of suspended animation.
This was premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven in 1982 and went on to Broadway and then the West End in ’83 winning a clutch of prizes. Danny Glover graced the original cast prior to becoming a star in Lethal Weapon. It was of course banned in South Africa.
This one is set in Port Elizabeth in 1950 a colonial world of ballroom dancing and tea shops. It takes place over a long rainy afternoon that 17 year old Hally (Anson Boon) spends with Sam (Lucian Msamati) and Willie (Hammed Animashaun), two middle-aged African servants of his parents' household, in a tea shop owned by Hally's mother.
Fugard brilliantly captures how those privileged white kids flitted between a deep familial intimacy with these family servants one minute and the cold hauteur of demanding to be addressed as ‘Master Harold’ the next. Fugard’s great achievement has always been to eschew the big horror stories of apartheid, which we’re all familiar with in any case, and instead focus on the micro, on how such a totally dysfunctional (and evil) system slowly and subtly corroded every relationship long before it disintegrated into violence.
Sam and Willie have cared for seventeen-year-old Hally his whole life and one minute he’s being scolded by Sam for not doing his homework while the next treating him as a subservient slave. Msamati, one of our best actors, is wonderfully poignant as Sam an orderly man of acute insight and intelligence who thirsts for self-improvement. He grasps at every chance to learn from with Hally and haltingly reads aloud from the dry school books as if they’re scripture.
Animaushaun perfectly captures the sheer ordinariness of Willie who is obsessed with winning a ballroom dancing competition while neglecting to grasp that casually beating up his partner when she falls short might not be a winning formula.
Young Anson Boons pulls off making Willie both the cocky loquacious youth as well as letting slip the nervous teenager underneath. Shocked by his causal cruelty one moment, the next you are drawn to his boyish vulnerability.
Director Roy Alexander Weise wittily intersperses the men’s ballroom training (it’s a quiet afternoon in the shop) with the central story about young Hally dreading the return from hospital of his bullying, disabled, father. He takes his anger out on Sam. For Sam’s part ballroom dancing provides his escape it’s the metaphorical space “a world without collisions” which gives him solace against life’s daily humiliations. Rajha Shakiry’s lyrical designs simply transform the tea shop into the impression of an art deco ballroom by simple use of a few lamps.
The play, a one-set, three-hander, is heavy on exposition with key plot points recounted as stories and the pacing does sag, by today’s standards, but, yet, this trio command our attention throughout and the piece builds to an incredibly moving crescendo. Hally grows up over the course of that rainy afternoon and comes to the realisation that he’s the one in the room doing the learning. His relationship with Sam will never recover. Fugard is a genius at showing how self-oppression plays out but also how bigotry accretes down the generations like layers of sediment and hardens the hearts of all involved.