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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
For Fugard to play Morris opposite the black actor Zakas Mokae in segregated Johannesburg, as he did when it in 1961 , was in itself an act of great bravery and commitment since the policy of arpartheid prohibited bi-racial casting. (When the play was televised in Great Britain six years later, Fugard's home was raided by the authorities and his phone tapped).
Fortunately arpartheid has been relegated to the history books. Consequently, this Beckettian parable about two brothers — one light skinned enough to " pass" — whose relationship was the author's metaphor for the country's racial divid, has lost its revolutionary intensity. Of course the bonds between brothers, especially when there's a troubling family history, is a universal one. A notable example of this is Suzan-Lori Parks 2002 Pulitzer winning Top Dog/Underdog, a quite different and yet also strongly metaphorical story of two brothers.
Unfortunately, Blood Knot, even more than /Road to Mecca, suffers from Fugard's authorial weaknesses. In addition to an overly long, much too talky first act, the more dynamic second act sacrifices believable dramatics in the interest of the political message. Still, it's heartening that Mr. Fugard is still active as a director, to have a chance to see how this fledgling but career-making early play holds up, and to do so as the inaugural production of the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater at the Signature's exciting new Frank Gehry designed home.
Christopher H. Barreca's one-room shack in a Coloured area on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, South Africa as lit by Stephen Strawbridge fully evokes the crippling barrenness of the impoverished surroundings of light-skinned Morris's and dark-skinned Zach's world. The periodic sound of an alarm clock ringing to to remind of Morris's next task also serves as an ominous symbolic warning about the bomb that is ticking its way throughout South Africa towards a blow-up of an untenable system that will have greater repercussions than any dramatic explosion in the brothers; narrow, joyless world.
The Signature production of the two-hander features two outstanding actors: Colman Domingo, the riveting Mr. Bones of The Scottsboro Boys, is well cast as the dark-skinned brother wo's more interested in some day-to-day fun at the end of an arduous day chasing black kids from a for-whites-only park and picking up rubbish long day. Scott Shepherd (a Wooster Group regular and narrator of the epic-length Gatz) gives an impressive performance as the more educated and intense brother who, having tried but failed to fit into the white world, has spent the last year caring for his brother and planning to turn both their go-nowhere lives into something more hopeful. The chemistry between the two actors is strong.
The action doesn't add up to much of a plot, but revolves around the daily routines that establish the brothers' individual personalities and routines: Morris, without providing much in the way of specifics about his aborted period of "passing," fussily tends to his housekeeping chores which include having a soothing foot bath awaiting Zach when he returns from his job. What is clear is Morris's determination to use their savings to buy a 2-man farm that will enable them to escape the ghetto and Morris's horrible job. What's also clear is the fraternal racial divide and different priorities resulting from having the same black mother but different fathers dates back to the names they were given. Like Suzan-Lori Parks' Lincoln and Booth, Zach and Morris are symbolically named (Zachariah being a black name, Morris identified with being White).
As for their attitudinal differences, Morris wants a planned future, Zack misses his old friend Minnie with whom he had fun, music and women. This prompts Morris to concoct a scheme to satisfy Zach's yearning for female companionship that won't jeopardize his own plans; to be specific, he sets him up with a female pen-pal. Naturally, since Zach is illiterate, Morris is the writing and reading intermediary.
The pen pal situation adds some much needed humor as well as the play's only plot complication. It seems that the paper with the pen pal ads that Zach bought was a White newspaper and the young lady who responds is not only white but has a brother who's a policeman. When she writes that she plans to visit Port Elizabeth and wants to meet Zach who then decides that the only solution to avoid trouble is to have Morris take take his place. And so their hard-earned savings are spent on an appropriate outfit. But no sooner has Morris tried on the outfit Zach bought (bravo to Susan Hilferty for that striking royal blue suit!), than the problem of the white pen pal has resolved itself. The fancy blue suit then becomes part of the devastating games that reveal the troubling Cain and Abel-like facets in the siblings' relationship — and, by extension, the attitudes and policies that contributed to the troubling undercurrents.
Despite its powerful message and position in this revered playwright's ouevre, Blood Knot, like Road to Mecca and some of Mr. Fugard's other plays are easier to admire than to truly enjoy.
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