An acclaimed play about the South Africa of 1950 danced me along to the South Africa of 1982. I say danced, because Master Harold...and the Boys involves two black servants whose dancing is a bittersweet metaphor of resilience and aspiration in a land of white supremacy. And resilience, warmth, even gaiety in the midst of difficulties were what had struck me about black people met on a first visit to South Africa some months before.
A very small sample, to be sure, reached through mutual acquaintances. But here they were, living in segregated townships, having to choose ''international'' restaurants where we could eat together, never mind the stares. And there they were, smiling with the stranger, offering hospitality, working to improve their housing, trying to get their children into better schools, going to night classes to qualify for better work, enjoying music, sports, sociability.
Not content with their lot. How could they be, with the rules and regulations of apartheid continually demeaning their humanity?
But these were people making the best of things. They didn't let their troubles erase the joy that buoyed up those in their company. When I mentioned this impression, someone said you can't be depressed all the time - then you would truly be defeated.
I thought of these new friends when I saw a New York performance of Master Harold...and the Boys, by South Africa's leading playwright, Athol Fugard, a man who has long been helping the world understand his country in works like Boesman and Lena and A Lesson from Aloes. The title of his latest work is a small ironic essay in itself. The boys, black, are grown men, and Master Harold, white, is a boy. They are in subjection to him as the son of their employers.
Yet the black men and the white boy have been friends, teaching each other, reaching across racial lines in affection and respect. Now the boy, under stress for various reasons, turns on them and asserts his domination as his father had done. Must the sons of South Africa continue the ways of their fathers forever?