Dancing together

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?

One of the black men, after graphically dramatizing the newly sundered relationship, looks toward tomorrow as a possible time of healing. Conceivably the dance to which the men return may not always be a sad one.

But that was in 1950, even as Alan Paton's latest novel of South Africa is set in 1950s. The latter also deals with efforts to resolve racial injustice that are the more haunting because this is 1982, and we all know how little has changed. (Only recently a now elderly white woman, on whom Paton based a character in the novel, was released from a South African governmental ''banning'' that had been imposed for her activities against apartheid.)

And yet...

Switch to another show in another theater, this time in South Africa itself. It was a revue satirizing today's South Africa, with author Pieter-Dirk Uys playing all the roles, male and female, black and white. It lampooned racist attitudes, discriminatory laws, politicians of every stripe. It did so in both English and in Afrikaans, the language of the Afrikaners who rule South Africa. When I caught it in Johannesburg it had been running for one hundred and fifty performances to full houses. Spectators who understood Afrikaans seemed to be laughing as much as anyone else. The very title, Adapt or Dye, offered a color-conscious pun on a famous phrase used by Prime Minister Botha when he came into office.

In character onstage Mr. Uys made comic capital of daring to defy government censors. But official toleration of a show like this did not seem so unusual to South Africans as to an outsider conditioned by reports of the suppression of more serious dissent.

Again the audience of white people with a sense of humor was a small sample. But the memory of being with them leavens the news from South Africa, letting a well-wisher hope that just maybe Master Harold and the boys will somehow, someday, dance to the same tune.

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