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Sam Semela is a "black man in his mid-forties" (20) working as a waiter in the St. George's Park Tea Room. Fugard paints him as an intelligent, refined, and compassionate man who's patient with Hally and who really gets Hally's problems with his family. He can't possibly be happy with his job as a servant in a tearoom and his lack of opportunity, but he doesn't complain and he seems to accept this terrible situation with some grace. It takes a lot to get him to crack.
Sam's pretty smart. Even if he hasn't had the chance to get a formal education like Hally has, he's obviously got a curious mind and great intellectual capacity. Hally has to help him with his reading when he comes across a difficult word, and his general knowledge isn't as wide as somebody who's been able to go to school. But when it comes to understanding ideas, he can go one-on-one with Hally in any discussion. When he nominates Alexander Fleming as a "Man of Magnitude" Hally's blown away:
HALLY. (After a delighted laugh) Penicillin and Sir Alexander Fleming! […] Splendid, Sam, splendid! For once we are in total agreement. The major breakthrough in science in the Twentieth Century. (634-637)
Sam's a teacher. He doesn't get paid for his work, but everyone he comes into contact with learns something.
Willie, for example, learns to dance. Sam gives him tips on how to look better on the floor: "Ja, make it smooth. And give it more style. It must look like you're enjoying yourself" (64-65). He also gives him some life lessons on how to treat others: "You hit her too much. One day she's going to leave you for good" (133-134).
It seems at first that Hally's the one that teaches Sam all the history, literature, and science he learns. Sam's been learning all that stuff right along with Hally as he goes through school.
SAM. Then came my first lesson. "Repeat after me, Sam: Gold in the Transvaal, mealies in the Free State, sugar in Natal and grapes in the Cape." I still know it! (661-663)
In the midst of all their intellectual sparring, Sam throws in plenty of life lessons. He gets a kick out of Hally's book-learning, but he likes to point out the flaws in Hally's arguments. After Hally makes fun of the foxtrot as something useless and silly, Sam tells him,
SAM. It's a harmless pleasure, Hally. It doesn't hurt anybody.
HALLY. It's also a rather simple one, you know.
SAM. You reckon so? Have you ever tried?
HALLY. Of course not.
SAM. Why don't you? Now.
HALLY. What do you mean? Me dance?
SAM. Yes, I'll show you a simple step—the waltz—then you try it.
HALLY. What will that prove?
SAM. That it's not as easy as you think. (1168-1177)
As the grown-up, Sam knows that nothing is as easy or as cut-and-dried as Hally thinks. He gives Hally the benefit of the doubt—he's just a kid, after all.
Sam uses the discussion about the dance competition to teach Hally the possibility of a world with less conflict than the one they're living in now.
HALLY. (Genuinely moved by SAM'S image [of the dancing]) Jesus, Sam! That's beautiful!
SAM. Of course it is. That's what I've been trying to tell you all afternoon. And it's beautiful because that is what we want life to be like. But instead, like you said, Hally, we're bumping into each other all the time. Look a t the three of us this afternoon: I've bumped into Willie, You've bumped into your mother, she bumping into your Dad…None of us knows the steps and there's no music playing. And it doesn't stop with us. […] Are we never going to get it right? …Learn to dance life like champions instead of always being a bunch of beginners at it? (1394-1411)
It turns out that Sam's really been educating Hally all his life. His lifelong project has been to help Hally grow into someone who is proud of himself:
If you really want to know, that's why I made you that kite. I wanted you to look up, be proud of something, of yourself… (1838-1839)
Sam's secret is that he sees learning opportunities everywhere. Even after the big argument with Hally, he says, "there was a hell of a lot of teaching going on" (1881-1882). Even though he never was allowed to go to school, the world is Sam's teacher.
Are you surprised that Sam doesn't get on Hally's case for all the demeaning and racist comments he makes? Like comparing the black ballroom dance contest to a primitive war-dance? Or ordering them around in the tearoom? The remark about Sam never having been a slave? Shmoop's guess is that Sam recognizes that Hally doesn't intend to be offensive when he says this kind of stuff. This is just how apartheid language and attitudes have seeped into Hally's ordinary language and actions. So he makes allowances for Hally and his youth and doesn't get too upset about it. He's been living with this kind of treatment all his life from the white people he knows.
It's when Hally deliberately tries to hurt him that he finally loses his cool. Hally starts in with the ugly stuff about his father being Sam's boss because he's a white man; Sam sees where this is going and tries to stop Hally, but he won't stop. Hally orders Sam to call him Master Harold; Sam warns him again. Only after Hally deliberately tries to humiliate him with a racist joke about the "n*****'s arse" does Sam finally crack—he drops his pants and shows Hally his butt.
The spitting incident is the last straw. Sam is stunned. A huge rupture opens up between them.
SAM. Ja, well, you've done it…Master Harold. Yes, I'll start calling you that from now on. It won't be difficult anymore. You've hurt yourself, Master Harold. I saw it coming. I warned you but you wouldn't listen. […] And you're a coward, Master Harold. The face you should be spitting in is your father's…but you used mine, because you think you're safe inside your fair skin…[…] (Pause, then moving violently towards HALLY) Should I hit him, Willie?
WILLIE. (Stopping SAM) No, Boet Sam.
SAM (violently) why not?
WILLIE. It won't help, Boet Sam.
SAM. I don't want to help! I want to hurt him. (1665-1678)
Sam tells Hally he's never felt dirtier in his life. But more than feeling angry, he's just crushed. He feels he's failed in teaching Hally to be a decent man, so he re-tells the story of the kite-flying, this time letting Hally know that he couldn't stay with him at the bench because it was whites-only, and he could get in serious trouble just being there. He remembers how Hally had to go into the bar first to get permission for Sam to go in so he could carry Hally's dead-drunk father out of the bar. He's making one last effort to teach Hally how they've both been damaged by the apartheid culture.
After he gets over his anger, Saint Sam takes responsibility for his behavior.
SAM. Hally…I've got no right to tell you what being a man is if I don't behave like one myself, and I'm not doing so well this afternoon. (1866-1869)
Shmoop is embarrassed to admit that we would probably not have acted so grown-up and restrained in this situation. What's amazing about Sam is his compassion for Hally, despite how Hally treats him. He can see past the ugly talk to the insecure, hurt little boy whose father has disappointed him and who still carries around a sense of shame about his dad. He understands that Hally's outburst was really directed at his father, and that Sam was just a safe target because of his race.
That doesn't mean Sam accepts this kind of horrible treatment, not at all. He tells Hally to deal with his shame and anger at his father, and he gives him a strong lesson in how his racist attitudes can damage him. He warns him that he's on a very dangerous road. But he understands why Hally's done what he's done and doesn't abandon him. At the end of the play, he says,
SAM. Should we try again, Hally?
HALLY. Try what?
SAM. Fly another kite, I suppose. It worked once, and this time I need it as much as you do. (1867-1871)
Saint Sam, indeed.