Are we our brother’s keeper? South African playwright Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, performed as part of Acts of Witness, examines the Biblical question of sibling rivalry at its most brutal, then lights the torch under that combustible issue by adding race to the question. Fugard’s play about South African brothers (one Black, one light enough to pass for White) during the Apartheid, is one of two theatrical events shown concurrently at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro through March 20th. The two-actor play directed by Joseph Megel (director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Communication Studies’ Process Series and co-director of the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance) remains one of Fugard’s most sought-after plays, written in 1961, performed on stages throughout the world, and known as a story that underlines the most brutal aspects of Apartheid.
Blood Knot’s premise reveals Fugard’s intention to be a dramatist who explores “the world of secrets with their powerful effect on human behavior and the trauma of their revelation.” Though he began working in the 1950s and wrote this play a decade into his career, Blood Knot was his first international success and broke barriers, yet he lost his passport as a result of its incendiary topic. Although the play’s theme centers on the difficulty of living within a divided country, the true nugget of the plot is the ways in which race can divide not only a country but also a family.
The play opens to a stage set as a spare shack with corrugated iron walls, wooden slabs covered in rough wool blankets for beds, wooden boxes used for seats, and only the most necessary household ingredients used for the men’s derisory existence. Morris (the light-skinned brother, played by Lucius Robinson) tends to household chores after an alarm clock awakens him, while his dark-skinned sibling, Zachariah (J. Alphonse Nicholson), works a thankless job. The brothers are linked by their mother, a woman Morris remembers fondly as having “brown hands and wearing a gray dress.” Each has a different father, a fact that causes Morris to leave the household for a while to explore his relationship with his own father and spend time passing for White. Morris returns to his Black brother, Zachariah, only after some event in his life has left him with no place to go. The ensuing relationship between the two men is both consuming and destructive.
It is clear in the opening moments of the play that Nicholson struggles with laryngitis, yet his raspy voice and the obvious difficulty he has in speaking only serves to deepen the metaphorical struggle his character has with the sibling relationship. When Nicholson as Zachariah stumbles onstage after a hard day’s work and sinks to his wooden bed to pull off the ill-fitting boots, his tired sigh is believable, and the audience commiserates with his complaints about his sore feet and the non-compassionate way with which his boss treats him throughout the workday.
Robinson as Morris immediately tends to his sibling, offering a bucket of hot water and gently washing Zachariah’s feet while the two share news about their day. During their ruminations, Zachariah remembers a friend he had and how that friend introduced him to women. It is clear that Zachariah misses that part of his life, so Morris suggests that Zachariah look to the personal ads in the newspaper for a pen pal. Morris’ dream, however, is for the two of them to buy some land to build a farm on that “empty space on the map.” To achieve that dream, Morris has been putting aside Zacharias’ meager wages in a tin can.
The banter between the brothers is understated and ponderous throughout the first half of the first act, though each of the actors completely embodies his character and reveals the frustration of eking out a shared living of poverty. The actors speak in different versions of South African dialect: Robinson’s Morris speaks with an English clip to his words, whereas Nicholson’s Zacharias has a South African roll to his language. The difference in their speech serves to highlight their physical differences, underlining the manner in which they act and within which they are treated.
The brothers argue good-naturedly, dream of a better life, share the news of their day, and dance around their unspoken feelings about race and each other. Until Zacharias returns home after work with a newspaper and Morris reads the ads written by three very different women, the play does not find purchase. But then Miss Ethel Lange, a “well-developed young woman,” becomes the target of Zacharias’ imagined affections, and the relationship between the brothers establishes a knife-sharp edge.
After a couple of letters (that Zacharias dictates to Morris, since Zacharias cannot read or write), Miss Ethel announces that she intends to come to Port Elizabeth on holiday and would like to meet Zacharias. She has already sent her photograph and the men are amazed that she’s a White girl — who has a brother who is a policeman. The fear that she will arrive with her brother and a good friend — only to discover that Zacharias is Black — sends the brothers into a mild panic. Zacharias convinced Morris to take their savings, buy some decent clothing, and meet Miss Ethel, passing himself off as his much darker-skinned brother. Though Morris does not want to spend the savings put aside for their farm, he acquiesces.
The clothes Zacharias brings home for Morris appear to take on an evil life of their own, as does the alarm clock which rings for no apparent reason, reminding the audience that the men (and Apartheid) are running out of time. When Morris tries these new clothes on, he also slips into White mannerisms that he obviously adopted during the period that he spent with his father. The brothers begin a game, imagining how Morris should act around other people and Miss Ethel, and Morris begins treating Zacharias as they know White people treat Black servants.
It is at this point that the game becomes a reality for the brothers, revealing the simmering racial tension between them that is mirrored by the world within which they live. They imagine what they would say and do when meeting the woman; and when a letter arrives saying she won’t visit after all, they are relieved, but the door to their racial tension has been opened and the game escalates. Morris’ contempt for his brother is evident and spirals out of control into violence. Zachariah’s feelings also deteriorate as he fantasizes about killing his brother. Then both realize it is just a game as the alarm clock rings once again.
The play’s climax and conclusion are vague and disconnected, as though Fugard meant to make a statement that Apartheid itself would continue, as the brothers’ unhealthy relationship does. Though it was written prior to the end of Apartheid, it is clear that the ramifications of the racial divide continue to cause schisms in both the country’s fabric, as well as within families. Given the responsibility of marking the time with subtle discussions juxtaposed against the last scene’s primal violence, the two actors performed brilliantly, and surprisingly, Nicholson’s voice remained strong throughout.
Dramatist Athol Fugard will visit UNC-Chapel Hill as the 2012 Morgan Writer-in-Residence from March 19th to 23rd, giving free talks and student workshops throughout that period. Blood Knot will resume its run on March 19th and 20th at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC.
SECOND OPINION: March 9th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC 91.5 FM/North Carolina Public Radio interview with Kane Smego, Will McInerney, and Joseph Megel, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/tsot/archive/sot030912a.mp3/view; March 8th Raleigh, NC CVNC review of Poetic Portraits of a Revolution by Andrea McKerlie: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5412 and March 7th review of Blood Knot by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5409; and March 7th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded Blood Knot 4.5 of 5 stars and Poetic Portraits of a Revolution 3.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/streetsigns-centers-acts-of-witness-at-the-artscenter/Content?oid=2884700; March 1st Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel previews by Walker Minot: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2012/03/actofwitness_0302 and Katelyn Trela: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2012/03/morgan_writer_in_residence_program_loses_funding; March 1st Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Cliff Bellamy: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/17706210/article-A-tale-of-two-brothers? (Note: You must register first to read this article); and Feb. 16th Durham, NC Duke Chronicle preview by Jamie Moon: http://dukechronicle.com/article/acts-witness. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the March 3rd Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/03/acts-of-witness-includes-blood-knot-and-poetic-portraits-of-a-revolution-performed-in-rotation/.)
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance presents BLOOD KNOT at 7:30 p.m. March 19 and 20 in the Earl and Rhoda Wynn Theater at The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina 27510.
BOX OFFICE: 919/929-2787 or http://www.etix.com/.
NOTE: There will be a post-performance talkback on Monday, March 19th, with WUNC producer Beverley Abel, Duke University professor Michael Valdez Moses, theater designer Kathy Anne Perkins, UNC professor Eunice Sahle, and African law and government scholar Bereket Selassie.
Blood Knot: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_Knot (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Athol Fugard: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athol_Fugard (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.
To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.