It’s an age-old question: Do clothes make the man? Or is the man already made and the clothes merely a telling of the man’s heart?
This is one of the quandaries that animates “Blood Knot,” Athol Fugard’s 1961 play about two brothers — one fair-skinned, the other darker — living gritty lives amid the brutality of apartheid South Africa.
Near the end of the two-act drama, which opened Friday in director Stephen DiMenna’s finely wrought production at Pillsbury House Theatre, fair-skinned Morris (Stephen Yoakam) and darker brother Zachariah (James A. Williams) play a game of dress-up.
In a nice suit, Morris plays a white man, assuming not just privilege but an attitude of wanton violence. In one of the show’s most shocking moments, he spits out a racial epithet that causes guttural shock, both onstage and in the audience. The play becomes all too real.
For his part, Zach also assumes the racial role that society expects, becoming servile and nonthreatening in a drama that’s part ugly racial Kabuki, part Beckett-like fable.
Playwright Fugard was in his 20s when he wrote “Blood Knot” as a clarion (though problematic) call to his countrymen. The actual narrative of the show is a dance between Morris, a wanderer, who has come to live with laborer Zachariah in his one-room shack near Port Elizabeth. Morris has an alarm clock, a Bible, and a plan to save his brother’s money to buy a farm.
Illiterate and lonesome, Zachariah works hard and longs for the company of a woman. Morris, who is literate, comes up with a solution. His brother should have a pen pal, with Morris both writing and reading the letters. A crisis arises when the pen pal, a white woman whose father is a policeman, writes that she’s coming to visit.
The production takes place on Joseph Stanley’s ramshackle, corrugated tin set, which is dimly lit by Michael Wangen and features Katharine Horowitz’s chaotic sound score. It has some moments of brotherly warmth. Before Zachariah comes home from work, Morris prepares a salted footbath (although he stops short of washing his brother’s feet, as happened in previous productions).
That tenderness and nuance, especially in the first act, are two of the things that make “Blood Knot” special. Another is the performances. Williams and Yoakam are delivering a master class in theatrical invention and humanity. They take pointillist approaches to sketching their characters, which helps to offset some of the challenges of the script.
While playwright Fugard wrote the characters as metaphors, he tightly aligns Zachariah and Morris to mores and racial phobias. Hence Zachariah is illiterate and violent and lusting for white women (his first sexual experience should have landed him in jail). Morris is reasoned and reasonable, except when he decides to use his power and privilege.
One could argue that Fugard is simply reflecting the thinking of apartheid South Africa, a thinking that has not left us. “Blood Knot” is not about America in 2019. Even so, it lands disturbingly here.